MLK Day: Celebrate with Peace

The conversation around Martin Luther King Jr. tends to stop with race. The popular understanding of his contributions, cultivated in public schools, Black History Month, and text books say two things:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man who brought equality to Black Americans through the Civil Rights Movement
  2. His work is complete today

Pieces of the first statement is true: Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man, but he did not bring about equality. We do not live in a post-racial world when people of color are murdered by police, murdered by white supremacists like Dylann Roof, when people of color are imprisoned and treated as criminals.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy, we must understand three very different truths than what we are taught:

  1. We have much to do to continue Martin Luther King’s work through active nonviolent, anti-racist lives where we do not allow ourselves to be divided by color lines
  2. Martin Luther King spoke out against more than racial injustice

He fought for an end to poverty for people of all races. And he understood that race and war and poverty are intertwined. At the time of his speech: “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967), the United States government spent approximately ten times more killing enemy soldiers than they did helping poor people. As he said further along in the speech:

I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

War becomes a matter of race because:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

The issue is the same today. We continue to send poor people–vulnerable people of all races–to fight overseas, when they are not guaranteed basic liberties in their own neighborhoods. One of the increasing number of Americans who cannot afford a college education? Through programs like the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) the military pays for your schooling and you join the military then as an officer. Our government and our military continue to exploit poor communities by denying them the basic right to education, and then (in one of many examples) paying for said education through an easy point of recruitment. Students become fodder for the war machine and are too busy learning military training to become politically active on college campuses.

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy we must stand against poverty in all its forms and against war and military recruitment. Only then can we march forward to equality.

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International Peace Museum

Ohio is known as the birthplace of aviation. Starting from the Wright brothers onward, Ohio boasts an Air Force Base and the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Inside the museum, patrons can trace the history of the USAAF from World War I all the way through to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the department’s work combating terrorism.

To be blunt, nothing makes me more cynical than military operations. To be even more blunt, every war is a mistake. Continue reading

Weapon of Choice

Traveling about in Istanbul, I finally made it to Sulanhamet and then the Topkapi Palace.

                         

Now, while I hate to skip over a description of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, you can find descriptions and pictures of these buildings anywhere. I need to speak not on the sightseeing experience, but one room I saw in the innermost courtyard of the Topkapi Palace: the armory.

The group I was with saw swords that were jeweled along the hilt with stones in every imaginable color. We saw curved swords, impossibly sharp daggers, sheathes that sparkled with gold inlay even under the harsh museum lights. We saw guns over four feet long and strung up behind glass. There were great-swords with hilts over a foot wide and blades at least six feet long. The artistic peak at the top of the helmets never ceased to amaze and armor made for horses lay flat on black velvet, the eye sockets blindly staring.

It was breathtaking. It was jaw dropping. It was violence done up in finery.

You forget (or you make yourself forget) that each of these weapons was a weapon. It’s purpose was never to sit in a museum to but to stain itself with blood or gun powder and always to kill. Even the ceremonial weapons were not innocent because ceremonial weapons exist to perpetuate and glorify violence and war.

I do not seek to make judgments on Turkey’s past or present. But upon exiting the museum, the people I was with began talking about their “weapon of choice” still lost in the fantasy of war heroics and the glory bestowed upon warriors. If it registered with them that these are dangerous objects, I couldn’t tell. The group was irreverent toward the history we saw but burned with desire and laughed and joked about what they could do with their weapon of choice. They chose their swords and their daggers and I had to struggle not to choose with them.

I understand the temptation to equate heroics with violence and I understand that our world showers glory upon the heroism of battle. I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, I know how breathtaking and appealing it can be to imagine yourself as the hero wielding a sword, or a bow or an ax. But this temptation is dangerous and perpetuates the myth of glorious warfare and masculinity on the battlefield.

The exhibit needed to address the wars these weapons were used in. We needed more than a small placard telling us the type of sword and the century. We needed to be turned away from our fantasies with the bloody facts of what war really is.

Museums should value history over violence. Museums should take responsibility to educate its patrons that though violence and history have gone hand in hand, this does not need to be the future and it should be no one’s fantasy.

Honor the Dead Don’t Honor the War

Every year for Memorial Day my family would march down our street set up lawn chairs along the main road and watch the Memorial Day Parade. Everyone from the boy scouts, to the girl scouts, to the high school marching band, to the fire department would get to march in the parade.

I didn’t think about it until this year but Memorial Day is a poorly disguised day to honor the glorious tradition of America.   I have family who are veterans and I’m not writing as an excuse to dishonor those who gave their lives. However, it is in terrible taste to create a holiday where everyone is taught to blindly love the wars America has fought.

My whole life, I’ve been told that we’re honoring the dead’s sacrifice for the living so we can have freedom today. But in reality, we’re honoring war. We’re honoring a tradition of white men who fight for some abstract idea of America. What does this even mean? We may have a democracy in theory but how many people actually feel they have a voice and can make change? Although America was founded under the banner of representation, we were never an egalitarian country: the founding fathers wrote up the Constitution to protect the interests of the rich white male. And that is the same interest of most of the wars we’ve fought in since.

I understand that’s a big generalization, but from my experience being taught to be patriotic and uphold the values of American freedom and democracy I’ve found that as we get older we’re never really told the truth. Sure we find out that our founding fathers owned slaves and that the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery, but we turn the wars America has fought in, into an impossible good vs evil struggle. And America is always the good guys.

I once argued with a friend’s boyfriend about America’s involvement in WWII. He told me that if America hadn’t gotten involved the world would have been lost. First, how can you prove this? Second, this is giving America a hero complex. This is completely ignoring the terrible racism America had against Japanese Americans even before the internment camps, ignoring that Pearl Harbor happened because America cut of Japan’s oil supply, and ignoring that America didn’t open our borders to Jews. There is so much more going on here than good vs evil and America’s great altruism to save the world.

It’s a great idea to have a holiday honoring the dead. However, we’re honoring America’s wars instead. We’re honoring the racism inherent in our system which segregated blacks and whites–racism which still affects people of color today. We’re honoring the lie of self determination we fought for in WWII, while America still held onto colonies and continued to racially oppress its own people. We’re honoring the numerous rapes and war crimes of Vietnam.

My home town is majority white and could be the quintessential American suburb: great school system, affluent area, white population. This is reflected in our Memorial Day parade where almost everyone who walks down the main road is white, middle class and raising high the American banner of white supremacy and patriarchy.

If we really wanted to do something for our troops, how about we implement a program where soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not encouraged to be islamophobic and racist. How about we protect the Bradley Mannings of the world instead of imprisoning them as threats to national security? What the women of the armed forces? They are suffering through sexual assault at increasing rates by other American troops. And this is the tradition we are honoring: one of violence against everyone.

This parade I had gone to since I was a child is a facade to further imbed American nationalism. I do not feel comfortable supporting a parade which perpetuates ideas of racism, patriarchy and violence.

By all means, honor the dead, but there are no heroes of war.