(Before the Syria situation exploded, we had planned to continue our "Oscar's Month". It will return after next week.)
In college, as a naive, young activist, I used to sit down during the national anthem. Michael C, as a young cadet, freaked out whenever I did this. At the time, I protested the anthem because I believed that excessive patriotism directly inhibits the self-criticism our nation (and all nations) need to be great. At its worst, unthinking lack of self-criticism helps repeatedly send our nation into destructive, violent, poorly-planned wars.
As we’ve written before, people tend to falsely attribute quotes to Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Einstein, Plato, Churchill and others, he’s one of the great men of history people attach to the quotes of less important thinkers to impart relevance. But I’ve been researching some anti-war “Quotes Behaving Badly”, and I found something interesting: virtually every quote by Martin Luther King Jr opposing war is true. Quotes like:
“But they asked--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”
Or this short excerpt from a much longer piece:
“War is not the answer.”
Tavis Smiley brought up Dr. King’s pacifism on ABC’s This Week, arguing that talk of war with Syria dishonors his legacy:
“There’s the issue of violence. War, Dr. King would say were he here, is not the answer. We cannot worship at the altar of retaliation. It’s either non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation, Dr. King would say were he here.”
The other panelists ignored him. When media critics criticize the media for not offering context, they’re talking about segments like this. During a week which featured two major news stories--the fiftieth anniversary of “I Have a Dream” and talks about going to war with Syria--very few pundits, reporters or news anchors connected the two. Every network covered the anniversary; few of them described Dr. King as anti-war.
The reason that the quotes of the less famous get attributed to the more famous is that the great thinkers of history become ciphers. We see in them what we want to see in them. Later on This Week, James Carville tried to make the case the Dr. King would have supported intervening in Syria:
“I think that we’ll frame our response this way. We’re not intervening in Syria. We’re punishing Assad. Because Assad is the one that actually did this and this is a horrible thing to gas young people. Let’s just put that right out. I don’t think Dr. King would have approved of that at all.”
He's right: Dr. King wouldn’t ever have dreamed of “approving” of using chemical weapons on civilians. He wouldn’t, though, have turned to cruise missile strikes as a first resort. In Foreign Policy, Elias Groll links Martin Luther King Jr. to intervening in Syria more forcefully (and still incorrectly):
“Still, it is important to remember that King was no outright pacifist. He was an avid student of the theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that in the face of tyranny and violence an armed response can sometimes be justified. Niebuhr is also one of Obama's favorite philosophers. In 2007, when asked what he had taken away from Niebuhr, Obama offered something of a prescient preview of his often-militarist foreign policy: ‘I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction’; that ‘we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.’
“It's a foreign policy King might have gotten behind.”
I doubt it. Dr. King was non-violent. Militantly non-violent. Pacifists like Dr. King and myself fear war. We only support war as a means of last resort in the most dire of situations. Last resort. Syria does not fit that criteria. At all.
This weekend, I attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by John Williams. The show opened with the national anthem. As the crowd stood, I couldn't help thinking about Syria. I thought about how almost no one in the auditorium knew about the possible intervention with Syria. Hell, I’d barely followed the issue and I co-write a milblog. I thought about how, since Obama became president, America has dropped bombs in four different countries and we were about to launch missiles into a fifth. I wondered if most of the auditorium could even name those countries.
Mostly, I thought about how, in my relatively young life, my country will have gone to war three times, deployed its military eight times--three times since 9/11 not counting Syria or drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. It doesn’t make me proud. It makes me not want to stand and sing the national anthem.
Though I didn’t think about it last Saturday, Dr. King’s word from his speech ‘Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” captured my feelings best:
“Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”
It’s why, now, I stand during the national anthem.