My Turn: 43-year-old King Jr. speech enlightens on peace

Posted: Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I was listening to a speech recently, "Beyond Vietnam" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War over 40 years ago.

I won't enumerate his points here, though I agree with them. Two things stood out for me as I listened.

We live in a deeply divided nation, a country in which a dialogue has been and is being fabricated; one which attempts to explain everything and is splashed across virtually every media outlet of print, television, radio and the internet: It's a conversation that works tirelessly to divide us between the mythical poles of "right" and "left," political poles that, on close examination, differ only in nuance, while tacitly agreeing on the unvarying direction this country has taken since Martin Luther King Jr. made that speech two generations ago. Conspicuously missing from this "conversation" are meaningful voices for peace.

"Peace," if mentioned at all, is covered strictly in one-dimensional terms, as a nebulous opinion with no real context; a word in the mouths of the uneducated, the hopelessly naïve; or worse, as a euphemism for a complete military victory.

Most of us want peace, however - in our families, workplaces and communities. Few of us relish the thought of our tax dollars funding the bombs, missiles and bullets that have ripped through the flesh, the homes, and the communities of men, women and children in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Pakistan, to name a few. Few of us, if tasked, can explain exactly why these places posed a threat to world peace, or say how our military brought peace, unless it's the peace of the conquered and cowed.

"Peace" is represented in the sanctioned national dialogue by those who view these actions to be regrettable, but necessary - co one can make a case for the kind of peace necessary for true prosperity in a country whose economy depends largely on the manufacture of weapons and the means for perpetual warfare.

The other thing I noticed was his use of the word honor: "If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam."

Under the steady pressure that has been exerted since the political and cultural upheavals of the 60's, to change our definitions and refocus the debate in terms favorable to the status quo, the word "honor" is seldom used publically in the way meant by Dr. King - That of honesty and integrity in one's beliefs and actions.

We honor our fallen soldiers, we honor the rich and the famous, and we express what remains of our personal honor by such things as following orders, serving faithfully and not questioning the concessions we as a society have made to put cars in our garages, computers on our desks, our kids through school and food in our refrigerators, because to do so would be to invite disgrace: A media microscope held unblinkingly to our human frailties until we wither beneath its gaze.

That microscope had already been turned on Dr. King, yet he remained a human being and continued to speak about what he believed in, and his message reverberates to this day, in every way as strong as on the day he uttered it.

Listening to him 43 years after the fact, as he spoke passionately about peace and unity, a speech that would ultimately result in his death a year later to the day, on April 4, 1968, made me realize that we have successfully talked ourselves out of peace for well over two generations, but also that we are more than the sum of our self-imposed double-speak.

We as a people are far more than the manufactured dialogue currently raging in our non-stop televised election cycles, and there remains a real and abiding belief in peace and equality outside of the controlling debates of the corporate media.

• Jamison Paul is a Juneau resident.

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