The Real Issue to be Faced: King Day Reflections on the State of the Union and the World

Radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A Testament of Hope,” 1969


Together We Thrive


In his speech commemorating the victims of the mass murderer Jared Loughner in Tucson, Arizona, Barack Obama turned to the Bible. At a memorial service titled “Together We Thrive: Tucson and America,” the president told mourners how “Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.” Quoting from the Book of Job, the president informed his fellow Americans that “Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations afterward. None of us can know what triggered the attack or what could have been done to prevent it.” He repudiated progressives who point to the role of right-wing ideology in inspiring the Tucson massacre.  He called for “a good dose of humility, rather than pointing fingers and assigning blame.” He counseled Americans to “sharpen our instincts for empathy,” to show greater “kindness and compassion,” and to ask “whether our priorities are in order.” 


It doesn’t get much more vapid than that.  There’s nothing mysterious or particularly surprising about Loughner’s attack on a Democratic congressperson and a federal judge. Loughner is an unbalanced fascist who lives in a savagely unequal, amoral, and insecure society that disseminates hateful and paranoid messages across its right wing media empire.  That society lacks a decent mental health policy and makes deadly weapons available to disturbed and dangerous people.  Loughner was deemed too mentally unstable to attend community college or join the U.S. Army, but he had no difficulty purchasing a Glock handgun and a 33-round magazine.  He lives in a country that is controlled by an amoral business elite that has been ruining American lives and driving untold numbers of working and middle class people out of their minds for decades.  The investor class has no use for masses of American citizens, 15 million of whom are now officially unemployed (the real number of involuntarily jobless is much higher) – the biggest number since the Great Depression.


“Together we thrive.”  Hello? Arizona has the second highest official poverty rate among the nation’s 50 states, a stunning 21.2 percent (the state’s real or functional poverty rate is certainly over 30 percent) and Tucson has the highest poverty mark of any city in the state.  Less than half (45 percent) of Arizona’s residents possess private health insurance, and a fifth of the state’s population, more than 1.3 million, lack health coverage of any kind. More than 70,000 homes were foreclosed in Arizona in 2010, up from just 1,000 in 2005. If there’s one thing Tucson and Arizona have not been doing recently it is “thriving.” According to recent reports, Loughner had not received a paycheck in six months.  He’d been fired from at least five jobs and filled out employment applications at more than 60 low-wage retail outlets.


When Everyone is Carrying a Firearm


Amidst this crisis, hard right media and political personalities likes Glenn Beck instruct shattered people with fragile psyches and damaged minds to “act now” (before its too late) against “socialist tyranny” – the right’s ludicrous take on Obama’s state-capitalist neoliberalism. Deadly, state-of-the-art human-exterminating weapons run remarkably free, like the madness and hatred on the airwaves and the Internet, where the preposterous notion that centrist, corporate-friendly Democrats are radical Marxist enemies of freedom and prosperity is standard fare. America is something of an “Armed Madhouse,” to steal a book title from Greg Palast, as is suggested in a chilling post-slaughter comment from Tea Party state representative Jack Harper (R-Arizona). “When everyone is carrying a firearm,” Harper proclaimed, “nobody is going to be a victim.” Yes, let us all – women, men, boys, and girls (one of Loughner’s murdered victims was a third grader named Christina Taylor Green) strap on weapons and ammo before every trip to the supermarket or coffee shop. Last year Harper submitted a bill to the Arizona state legislature that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses. Welcome to the wild west. “Rally ‘round yo family with a pocketful of shells” (Rage Against the Machine).


Obama’s speech was an attempt to cloak deepening social tensions and present a sugar-coated picture of the United States’ toxic, paranoid, and hate- and gun-addicted political culture. He made no reference to the real and deep problems confronting the American people—mass structural unemployment, extremes of great wealth and mass poverty in the industrialized world’s most unequal nation ( a country where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent), worsening ecological catastrophe, corporate control of media and politics, the ongoing deterioration of social infrastructure, and a vastly expensive military empire that continues to conduct criminal wars both overt and covert, and more. The president naturally made no reference to recent federal tax cuts for the wealthy, passed while the administration and congress have refused urgently needed action to provide jobs for the unemployed, alleviate poverty, and bail out state and local governments.


I am personally surprised there haven’t been more incidents like the Tucson tragedy in the Armed Madhouse in the last couple of years. As Patrick Martin noted on the World Socialist Web Site a few days ago: “Under conditions of a capitalist social order that deals with the unemployed—and the mentally ill—in cold and inhuman fashion, and a ruling class that glorifies violence and practices it more widely and brutally than any other on the planet, events such as those which took place January 8 in Tucson are inevitable.”(See Patrick Martin, “Obama in Tucson: Providing an Amnesty for the Right Wing,” World Socialist Web Site [January 13, 2011]at http://wsws.org/articles/2011/jan2011/obam-j13.shtml).


Golden Rules


Martin’s line about violence reminds me of a line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow (I am writing on Sunday, January 16, 2011).  On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination or execution, King earned the contempt of the American establishment by having the decency to observe – at the height of the United States’  “crucifixion of South East Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s excellent term for the one sided American-imperial assault that killed more than 3 million in that region between 1962 and 1975) – that Uncle Sam was the “leading purveyor of violence in the world.”  The description still fits 44 years later in a time when the U.S. spends more than a trillion dollars a year on “defense,” accounts for nearly half the species’ military spending and maintains more than 1000 military bases spread across more than 120 nations. Meanwhile, reflecting what in the late 1960s King called “the nation’s perverted priorities,” a vast and rising mass of basic social needs go unmet in the imperial “homeland” – the supposed global headquarters of freedom and democracy, the “beacon to the world of the way life should be” (U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson,R-TX).


The president and a fair bit of the media and political elite are calling for a “New Age of Civility.” They are using the Loughner atrocity to quell citizen anger – to marginalize real and legitimate popular discontent. I have nothing but uncivil contempt for those who posit moral equivalence of “incivility” between an armed rightist who attacks a federal official or structure and an unarmed antiwar marcher who reasonably chants “Hey Obama, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today?”


And is it not a bit nauseating to get Gandhian lectures on nonviolence and civility from a president who rains bombs and drone-launched missiles on wedding parties, children, and villages in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia? I am reminded of another Scripture-quoting president who the standard hypocritical Superpower spin on the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Bill Clinton waxed eloquent and teary-eyed on the need for loving kindness and healing in the wake of the Columbine school shootings (April 20, 1999). Meanwhile he was criminally bombing Serbia (between March 24 and June 11, 1999) and continuing the “economic sanctions” that killed more than a million Iraqis during the 1990s.


There’s another golden rule: “those who have the gold rule.” During the Iowa presidential Caucus campaign, the Democratic candidate John Edwards used to say that big progressive change could never be accomplished without “an epic fight with concentrated wealth and power” (it seems doubtful that Edwards actually wished to undertake that fight).  He openly and impolitely attacked Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as “corporate Democrats” and mocked Obama’s “Kumbaya” notion that good results could come from “sitting down at a big negotiating table with corporations and Republicans.” Obama scored points with corporate campaign financiers and the corporate media by rejecting Edwards’ common-sense populist rhetoric as uncivil, arguing in a Des Moines debate that “we don’t need more heat, we need more light.” We have seen who his bringers of “light” are – the very same Wall Street and Pentagon overlords who ran the country into the ground under George W. Bush. Lecturing the multitude on the need for civility while making policy on behalf of the rich and powerful at “Government [Goldman] Sachs” is an ugly elitist game. 


Perverted Priorities


Obama’s line about getting “our priorities in order” raises unpleasant questions about the direction of policy under his administration. A recent report from the National Priorities Project (which takes its name partly from Dr. King’s phrase) contains the following information


* New York state has 128,128 Head Start (federally subsidized pre-school)-eligible children, yet only 48,013 Head Start places. For New York's share of this year's Afghan War spending, the state could fund Head Start places for all eligible children for 21 years.


* Wisconsin has 527,000 uninsured residents. For Wisconsin's cumulative Afghan War spending, the state could provide insurance for all uninsured for 3 years.


* The state of Washington consumes 1,168,531 Billion British thermal units (BBtu) of non-renewable energy and only 881,676 (BBtu) renewable energy. For Washington's share of cumulative Afghan and Iraq war spending, it could pay 23% of the cost to convert all non-renewable energy to solar energy or 79% to convert to wind energy.


* At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the North Carolina share of total war spending ($34 billion) would fund all in-state expenses of a four-year education for each incoming freshman class for the next 135 years.


* To date, $815 billion dollars has been allocated for the war in Iraq since 2003 and $445.1 billion dollars has been allocated for the war in Afghanistan since 2001. With this latest update, total cost of war funding is $1.26 trillion.


I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King’s warning from New York City’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. “A nation that spends more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King warned, “is approaching spiritual death.” 


Such a Thing as Being Too Late


The National Priorities Project’s inclusion of a bullet point on the trade-off between military spending and spending on renewable energy reminds me of something else Dr. King said on April 4, 1967. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,” King said. “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life there is such a thing as being too late…Over the bleached bones and jumbled reside of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”


Anyone who doubts the relevance of that comment today ought to have a look at the most important book published last year: Bill McKibben’s Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York, 2010). The anthropogenic (human-generated) climate change produced by modern petro-capitalism and the related growth ideology of the wealthy Few does not merely pose grave difficulties for “our grandchildren.”  Massive deleterious transformation in core planetary processes and phenomenon – extreme weather, flooding, burning, deforestation, desertification, drought, erosion, water and food availability, species survival, bacteriology, and more – are no longer merely unavoidable.  They are already under way. The eco-apocalypse created by the profits system is happening now. The need for human intervention was already urgent when President Jimmy Carter (who hosted a White House gathering for the anti-growth eco-economist E.F. Schumacher) tried in his own weak way to warn Americans off the “spiritual emptiness” and peril of “self-indulgence and consumption” – of “owning things” and “piling up material goods” in pursuit of an endless more. Now, McKibben shows, we’ve waited too long. “Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.  We’ve created, in short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different.  We may as well call it Eaarth…This,” McKibben muses, “is the biggest thing that has ever happened in human history.”  The recent and ongoing flooding in Australia and Brazil is only the latest indication of the massive changes underway. It is long past time for a dramatic shift to a post-carbon economy


Forty three years ago, in a posthumously published essay titled “A Testament of Hope,” Dr. King reflected that America and the world were plagued by “systemic rather than [merely] superficial flaws” showing that “radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced." Thanks to global warming, we are already in historical overtime.




Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008; Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York:Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).  His next book Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio) will be published next May. He can be reached at [email protected]

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