Swans Commentary » swans.com April 9, 2007  



Questioning Forty Years Of Optimism
From Riverside Church to Guantánamo Bay


by Gilles d'Aymery





(Swans - April 9, 2007)  A friendly reader raised the question of pessimism versus optimism (see Letters to the Editor, March 26, 2007) and stated that in his opinion Swans work was by and large too pessimistic. Without hope and optimism, what was left for the People to act upon, he asked, with the undercurrent thought, though not expressly laid out, that pessimistic views are inherently reactionary. He further recommended that the predicaments of our times deserve a more ideological, class-conscious narrative -- a contention that merits attention, though it is not the object of this article. The dichotomy into two contradictory parts -- pessimism vs. optimism -- is a false choice, both analytically and logically. Pessimism regarding a specific historical situation does not exclude optimism in the future, as long-time contributor Philip Greenspan can attest. The real issue is to attempt to assess the current actualities and endeavor to devise an optimistic outcome, in the form of public policies that meet the challenges and immense complexities the world faces. Not an easy endeavor, to say the least.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 78 years old now -- an age of wisdom -- had his promising thoughtfulness and guidance not been cut short by an assassin's bullet. How would he, were he able to come back from the fallen, assess the map of our era? This piece has no ideological or class-warfare rhetoric included; no slogans, no calls for the famed "Revolution"; no desire to see the latest "evil empire" defeated. It is about some of the issues the Reverend would assess were he back on this hopeful earth. Then, it's up to us, the People, to indeed unite and find solutions to the recurring and deepening complexities that are confronting us all.

According to the latest Newsweek poll, 91 percent of American adults believe in God. Almost half of the public does not believe in the theory of evolution; one-third of college graduates factually accept the Biblical account of creation -- college graduates for good sake! Moreover, 73 percent of Evangelicals, 39 percent of non-Evangelicals, and 41 percent of Catholics "believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years." (Source: "God's Numbers," by Brian Braiker, Newsweek, Web exclusive, March 30, 2007.) Whether there is a correlation or not, it's also informative to note that over half of the American people does not know how long it takes for the earth to orbit around the sun. Possibly some of these people may still believe that it's the sun that orbits around the earth, the center of the universe. In any case, it should not be surprising that over 70 percent of the American people believed that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks, had links with al Qaeda, harbored WMDs...and, let's not forget, the mushroom cloud over New York City...

We've been at war for over five years, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and now in the horn of Africa. We may or may not strike Iran. The Chief of Naval Operations speaks of a 20- or 30-year-long war. Testifying on March 29, 2007, before the House Appropriations Subcommittee in regard to the Defense Department Budget for FY08, Secretary Robert Gates asked for an 11 percent increase in expenditures (which does not include war supplemental bills), underlining the fact that there was room to grow since the military budget is only 4 percent of American GDP while in 1963 at the end of the Korean War it was 11.7 percent, in 1968 during the Vietnam War it was 9.8 percent, and in 1991 at the end of the Cold War it was 4.4 percent. There may be as many as 150,000 to 170,000 troops in Iraq and as many as 260,000 if the entire war theater -- Iraq and neighboring countries -- is taken into account. In addition, 126,000 privateers (contractors) operated in Iraq in 2006, according to Tina Jones, the DOD Comptroller and CFO. Furthermore, according to Mr. Gates, beside Iran, North Korea, Africa, and Venezuela, DOD is preparing for looming dangers of the future, particularly a "resurgent Russia" and China. Some $170 billion are earmarked for new weapons development, which is considerably more than what Russia and China spend on their own military combined.

Somehow, one cannot but be reminded of a few, rarely heard famous words (cited here with a slight geographical alteration, herein italicized):

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Iraq. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Iraq. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.


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 Iraq. If we do not stop our war against the people of Iraq immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Iraq, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Iraqi people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Iraq, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.

These words could have been delivered on April 4, 2007, as they are a remarkable reflection of the current situation, but in reality they come from a 40-year-old address that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) delivered at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, to "the Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam." I simply substituted Vietnam with Iraq. "Beyond Vietnam," as the speech is known, had immense reverberations within American society. Today, it is wholeheartedly ignored by the corporate media. Democracy Now! aired a short excerpt, and the folks at Counterpunch published it in its entirety. It should be read again and again.

As Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon explain in "The Missing Years" (also on Counterpunch), by the time of that speech MLK had been largely shunned by the Establishment. He was no longer the acclaimed civil rights leader of the early 1960s -- the one that keeps being celebrated nowadays -- and had become an antiwar leader and an assailant of society's ills. He purely and simply was challenging the capitalist order. He had long noticed income inequalities and the poverty shared by white as well as black communities all over the nation. Write Cohen and Solomon, MLK "called for 'radical changes in the structure of our society' to redistribute wealth and power." In other words, he had become a threat to the order of the day -- antiwar and socialist. He was assassinated one year later to the very day.

Were MLK alive today he could only witness a deepening of these ills. Wars with no end in sight, militarization of our society, the gutting of our Constitution, increased poverty with the ever-growing transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the privileged few, trends that many conservatives are increasingly denouncing too (cf. Ben Stein of The New York Times).

On April 4, 2007, MLK would have read an Editorial from The Times ("It Didn't End Well Last Time") that said:

Not since the Roaring Twenties have the rich been so much richer than everyone else. In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, the top 1 percent of Americans - whose average income was $1.1 million a year - received 21.8 percent of the nation's income, their largest share since 1929.

Over all, the top 10 percent of Americans - those making more than about $100,000 a year - collected 48.5 percent, also a share last seen before the Great Depression.

Those findings are no fluke. They follow a disturbing rise in income concentration in 2003, and a sharp increase in 2004. And the trend almost certainly continues, spurred now as then by the largess of top-tier compensation, and investment gains that also flow mainly to the top. For the bottom 90 percent of Americans who are left with half the pie, average income actually dipped in 2005. The group's wages picked up in 2006, but not enough to make up for the lean years of this decade.

The Times, the Establishment's paper of record no less!

Forty years later, MLK would also witness the poor waging wars on behalf of the rich. He would see African Americans, one-eighth of the country's population, being incarcerated at an ever-growing rate, rising sevenfold in just one generation, and accounting for one-half of the entire US prison system. He'd be stunned by the abhorrent 3-strikes law that is exceedingly applied against blacks. He'd find out that nearly 40 percent of black youth is unemployed and he would have a difficult time believing the factual state of the Union, in which 29 million people cannot pay their heating bills and close to 50 million live without health insurance.

Having looked deep into the heart of the Johnson administration's foreign policies, he would not be particularly surprised by the business-as-usual stand the Democratic presidential hopefuls hold in regard to war without end. "No option can be taken off the table," says Senator Hillary Clinton in reference to Iran. "We should take no option, including military action, off the table," says Senator Obama, the darling of the new Democrats. "We need to keep all options on the table," adds Senator Edwards. But he surely would be highly disappointed that the Congressional Black Caucus, with the exception of four of its members (Reps. Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, and John Lewis) voted for the Democratic supplemental bill that funded the war machine with a few hypocritical gimmicks to make it appear as an antiwar legislation.

He would be hard-pressed to believe indeed that forty years later the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been resolved due to the abject lack of courage of American politicians; that help to the poor world -- what was known as the Third World in his times -- was only $103.9 billion, or 0.30 percent of GDP of donor nations (in his times the goal was one percent of GDP); that this help has actually decreased by 5.1 percent in 2006 (remember the budget of the US military will increase by 11 percent in 2008, at the very least); that compared to the transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries, these $103.9 billion dollars pale in comparison to the poor countries' transfers of $784 billion to the rich countries in 2006, up from $229 billion in 2002, according to Tina Rosenberg ("Reverse Foreign Aid," The New York Times Magazine, March 27, 2007); that "There are now 946 billionaires in the world, according to Forbes, and 371 of them are in the United States with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett topping the list with $56 billion and $52 billion respectively." ("Winners and Losers - A Dog-Eat-Dog System," by Stephen Fleischman, Counterpunch, April 2, 2007); that more than one billion people do not have access to potable water and 2.6 billion people lack a sanitation system.

Rev. King would not have been shocked by the torture circus in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and all infamous prisons set up by the US government. Torture, after all, was a regular and racist occurrence during the Vietnam War. He would be dumbfounded, however, that forty years later America would still replicate the same barbarian practices, and that the American people would remain as apathetic, as willingly ignorant, and as despondent as they were four decades earlier when facing their own moral oblivion. Then again, being a black man, he might not be that surprised.

How MLK would react to our planetary emergency, both human and ecological, is for anyone to imagine. He'd look with much pain at the sinking of the entire African continent into an orgy of violent conflicts, hunger, debilitating diseases, and the pillaging of its natural resources by the rich world, and could only point to one slim ray of hope, the end of Apartheid in South Africa. He'd hear of the hundreds of thousands of suicides by poor farmers in the Indian subcontinent in disbelief. How many of the poorest of the poor must be sacrificed for the benefit of the very few, he'd wonder. He'd witness hunger and poverty rising as never before. Then, he'd be informed that glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, fisheries are dying, forests are being decimated, man-made carbon dioxide is suffocating the planet, and ever-more powerful cars are being produced. Profits and greed, he'd assert, remain the only game in town, though the village has been globalized as it is being further sacrificed for our latest Gilded Age.

Surely, he would be amazed by our communication age, the interdependence of the world, the ability to connect almost instantly at the tip of one's finger, but would be dismayed by the inability of the forces for peace and justice to unite as they are ever more drowning into sectarianism and communitarianism, the disfranchisement of ever larger swaths of the public, and a youth more preoccupied with video games and an insecure future.

A wise man, MLK would be left speculating how come ten of millions of honeybees have disappeared without traces. Do they know something we do not, he would ponder.

He then would ask an inquisitive question: "What are you doing, dear brothers and sisters, in the face of this dire state of affairs?"

Good question.


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About the Author

Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Published April 9, 2007