Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Dead Have No Say

Trey Smith

The civil right achievements of Martin Luther King are quite justly the focus of the annual birthday commemoration of his legacy. But it is remarkable, as I've noted before on this holiday, how completely his vehement anti-war advocacy is ignored when commemorating his life (just as his economic views are). By King's own description, his work against US violence and militarism, not only in Vietnam but generally, was central - indispensable - to his worldview and activism, yet it has been almost completely erased from how he is remembered.

King argued for the centrality of his anti-militarism advocacy most eloquently on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City - exactly one year before the day he was murdered. That extraordinary speech was devoted to answering his critics who had been complaining that his anti-war activism was distracting from his civil rights work ("Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?"). King, citing seven independent reasons, was adamant that ending US militarism and imperialism was not merely a moral imperative in its own right, but a prerequisite to achieving any meaningful reforms in American domestic life.

In that speech, King called the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", as well as the leading exponent of "the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long" (is there any surprise this has been whitewashed from his legacy?). He emphasized that his condemnations extended far beyond the conflict in Southeast Asia: "the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." He insisted that no significant social problem - wealth inequality, gun violence, racial strife - could be resolved while the US remains "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift" - a recipe, he said, for certain "spiritual death".
~ from MLK's Vehement Condemnations of US Militarism Are More Relevant Than Ever by Glenn Greenwald ~
It is not uncommon for individuals to live their lives in certain ways because their legacy is so important to them. They want to be remembered for this and that. What they don't seem to understand, as history has shown, is that how the dead are remembered is defined by the living!

MLK's life offers but one example. Certain portions of his legacy are palatable to the powers that be and so ONLY those parts are commemorated. The parts of his activism that make them uncomfortable are conveniently swept under the rug. If a person doesn't do their own research, you would never know about the speech that Greenwald references.

This same dynamic can be applied to far-ranging people like Jesus or George Washington as well to historical documents like the bible or the US Constitution. Once their lives have ended or the ink has dried on the paper, the definition process begins. People who never knew the deceased start to tell you what their lives were all about and people who weren't around when documents were drawn up inform you what the deceased authors REALLY meant.

Of course, it HAS to be this way. As far as we know, only the living get to interpret life. The dead have no say.

The danger, however, is that the ruling element in any given society has undue influence as to how the dead are remembered or what their writings mean. More often than not, past lives and documents are turned on their heads to further a contemporary perspective, one that tends to undermine the totality of what those people or documents once stood for.

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