John G Bell


Fall '02 - Hill & Gilliam

Book Response: Beyond Vietnam by Martin Luther King Jr.

A. Important things about ...

  1. the power and limitation of dialogue

    The powers and limitations of interpersonal dialogue also seem to apply on a larger scale. The need to enter into conversations of respect and hear the story of the other are just as important on the collective level as they are on the individual level.

  1. American or world society

    The world seems addicted to the idea that violence solves things. Even in “A Force More Powerful” the idea of nonviolence is put forth as a tool to sway world opinion for the purpose of motivating a larger military power to oppress the oppressor, especially in the final chapters. Nonviolence should be more than just a tool, but the moral imperative that King talks about. This will have more to do with finding a way for the disaffected voices of the world to be heard and to know that they are heard, not just that they are listened to by those in power. Our current society, more so recently, is all about suppressing dissidence and silencing opposition to the power elite, both internationally and nationally.

  1. these specific groups

    The warnings about how the US will be viewed have come to fruition and the futility of supporting oppressive and violent regimes across the planet has created repeated incidents where US foreign policy has come back to haunt us all. It seems to me that US foreign policy should end up looking like Sister Helen's attempts in “Dead Man Walking” to meet with both sides and offer to listen and provide assistance. In the case of Sister Helen and the Piercys, the Piercys decided that the cost of that was too high and Sister Helen was able to respect that. The US should become annoying to both sides in that it aggressively offers humanitarian assistance to all sides of a conflict, but should not allow itself to become the sugar daddy to another government's addiction to violence, nor should it become the pusher of the paraphernalia and substance of continued addicting violence. I worry that the pattern of violence has gone too far, just like in American History X where the change in behaviour is too late to stop the landslide that results in further murder and death.

  1. myself

    I am far too passive about my resistance to the status quo. I am slow to accept that nonviolence and compassion are moral imperatives. Even though I recognize and bemoan the status quo, I tacitly and willingly participate in gender, race, class and national privilege. To paraphrase Amon Hennecy, a relatively famous catholic worker and anarchist, I have to become nonviolent and compassionate because it will save my life. I also have to continue being compassionate with myself and understand that this is a process likely without end. I have been on this path and that's what's brought me to this place and this time. I have merely to decide how I will choose to continue forward. I can chose to resist the personal and societal forces trying to alienate me from others, or I can stop resisting and allow myself to fall back asleep. I can get very tired, but I have to stay awake or the concussion caused by the dysfunctional violence in this world may make me comatose. “I must not fall asleep or the evil clowns will eat me.”

B. Talking points

  1. The super-duper, new and improved war machine

p2 “... then came ... Vietnam and I watched the program broken ...”

p2 “... compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor ...”

p3 “It [America] can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over”

p6 “We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among the Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.”

He watched the war machine rise up and run over the progressive programs and gains that had been made, just like the war today is being used as both an excuse and a smoke screen for an aggressive campaign against just about every progressive domestic program. The war machine is perhaps a natural tool to use against the people, the culmination and destructive catharsis of the culture of fear. Is this the perpetual war of “1984” with the enemy du jour?

In my class several years ago, an integrative class on Vietnam, I noted a distinct similarity between the way that the government and people of this country behaved and the symptoms of clinical addiction. In this speech, King seems to make some of the same comparison to addiction.

This whole speech could with only minimal changes be speaking to current events and the current war of the moment, a war where we are militarily supporting an economic agenda in the whole region. The fault is that we aren't able to admit that we have made mistakes. The father is protected by the son from any admission of guilt in the condition of the status quo, and the son continues to build on that foundation.

Worse still is that I have a huge sense of apathy. I feel revolted by the past, but not enough. I feel horrified by what my government is doing, but not enough. I fear the future, but not enough. My excuses to myself are that I have information, but not enough, or that I may have power to make changes, but not enough. There's a million things wrong with the way things are, but there's a million excuses to stay focused on my own issues. This denial is part of the addiction. The denial and willingness to look past these problems only increase the effect and increase the extent to which I can be manipulated and my progressive politics can be contained.

In the last year, I have made the conscious effort to actively support groups like the ACLU, EFF, Amnesty International and joined a union for technology workers. All this is just a kind of indulgence for continued consumption of privilege in my society and in the world. I feel trapped by my addiction to this society and the comfort level of consumerism. When I'm upset, I got shopping or I eat junk food. When I'm lonely, I go out and watch a movie. When I'm guilty, I contribute to something, and then get back to life as normal. As much as everyone else, I'm just a frog in slowly boiling water.

  1. The shout of the disaffected

p8 JFK “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

I just had images from a movie where there's lots of action and confrontation, but in which the hero doesn't actually kill or hurt anyone. The protagonist uses a martial art like Aikido, and there's lots of amazing tumbles and falls, but the hero is careful to use only the redirected force coming from the attacker. I can imagine both that this could be a wonderful and action filled adventure, and that it would be wholly unsatisfactory to the public. The public wants to see the culmination of violence.

The whole action hero genre is just a retelling of the same myth as Hercules. The storyteller's repertoire has always contained the semi-divine unconquered hero. This hero cannot be defeated and overcomes every obstacle in his path.

This missing part of the modern myth is the part where the unconquered hero gives up his immortality and power in exchange for love. This is the thing that King is saying we need to recapture, that additional step that we've lost. Our society seems to feel that letting go of the power is a weakness, like Samson's betrayal by Delilah. Instead, it's the ultimate challenge. As King says it's the ultimate challenge of every religion in the world, how ever it is framed in each narrative.

But is nonviolence and compassion enough? In “A force more powerful” there's a constant reminder, especially in the last chapters, that nonviolence doesn't stop the violence and death. Further, there's a subtle refrain that the point of nonviolent protest is to mobilize a greater power than the oppressor. This reliance on a larger, bigger fish is just a more abstract addiction to violence and undermines the whole idea that nonviolence is a moral imperative, reducing it to a tool toward gaining world opinion to sway the violent action, to call down the thunder.

If the world is not able to find a way to meet and in some way satisfy the inimical and violent forces, those that will be willing to resort to violence will continue to escalate and they will increasingly have access to more deadly and destructive weapons. Simply attempting to crush them by force will only increase the sense of urgency and anger they have that will drive them to greater acts of courage. Further, speaking of peaceful nonviolence will be hallow and meaningless while our governments continue to wield the hammer of violence which, as Jonathan Moore says, “beating out the coded rhythms of privilege.” It will continue to appear that we are hiding a sword behind the white flag unless we address the addiction to violence inherent in the way the world addresses conflicts and the response to oppression will continue to be a recourse to violent action if there is no other way for the voiceless to be heard and to feel that they have been heard.

C. Outrageous statement or claim

p9 “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

In this short document there are more believable and reasonable suggestions for healthy and sane foreign policy that I've ever heard from the current administration. There has to be a way for our society, so addicted to the heady euphoria of our collective will to power, to join a world society as a partner in peace.

This was the most disturbing theme to me in American History X. The will to power, that need to feel superior and strong in the face of challenge, drove so much of the violence and anger. Ultimately this conflict between the individual and the other led to death. Our society has a kind of collective arrogance that is astonishing and irrational.

However, I recognize that I condemn this kind of maverick cowboy individualism in one sense, usually as used by the power elite, but I celebrate the kind of militant aggressiveness of progressive groups like the Wobblies and feel a kind of euphoria when I think about the triumph of the underdog. This is part of my own addiction to the same drug. I know that there are limitations to this strategy, and I am trying to disarm myself of my weapons of privilege. However, there's always the temptation to keep a last resort to violence and privilege, just in case. This is something that disturbs me about my society and myself.