Our work attempts to address the question of how we might retain our common humanity and our collective memory to set as a light and a defence against the looming darkness.
In his 'Beyond Vietnam' speech delivered at the Riverside Baptist Church in April 1967, Dr Martin King Jnr talked of his conversations with those who he described as the 'desperate', 'rejected' and 'angry' young men living in the Northern ghettos of the United States.
“I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve it's problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first speaking clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today; my own government. For the sake of hundreds and thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
Exactly one year to the day of delivering his sermon, Dr King was silenced by an assassins bullet.
The final year of his life was an isolated and desperately lonely one following his decision to take a stand against a war which he now clearly linked with the issue of poverty: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.... there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
If the speech had left a nation feeling deeply uncomfortable with itself, it had shaken the establishment more so, and thus a prophet's voice was silenced.
As Martin King was bearing witness to the carnage raging in Vietnam, MIT Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky was doing the same in his first book, 'American Power and the New Mandarins', published also in 1967. Writing from a place that he has since described as the “Athens of America”, Professor Chomsky spoke of the prevailing “brutal apathy”, and a “moral degeneracy on such a scale that talk about the 'normal channels' of political action and protest becomes meaningless or hypocritical. We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the US is dissent or denazification. The question is a debatable one. Reasonable people may differ. The fact that the question is even debatable is a terrifying thing. To me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification. What is more, there is no powerful outside force that can call us to account – the change will have to come from within”.
While continuing to consider what our responsibilities might be in recognising our crimes, he writes that while we regret them deeply, we must not “be paralysed by this recognition. Anger, outrage, confessions of overwhelming guilt may be good therapy; they can also become a barrier to effective action, which can always be made to seem immeasurable with the enormity of the crime. Nothing is easier than to adopt a new form of self indulgence, no less debilitating than the old apathy. The danger is substantial. It is hardly a novel insight that confession of guilt can be institutionalised as a technique for evading what must be done. It is even possible to achieve a feeling of satisfaction by contemplating one's evil nature.''
Today there can be little doubt whether we are staring full into the face of the spiritual death that Dr King warned of, and as a people we are being sorely tested. Our perpetual wars have driven us into a deep economic and moral bankruptcy, and we find ourselves at the end of a ten year orgy of ignoring reality; and as a consequence, of baiting and banishing the voices of truth and reason of our own times whilst rewarding and compensating those who ought rightfully to be serving lengthy prison sentences. There are though no 'outside forces' that can bring us to account, and effective action remains our individual and collective responsibility.
When considering the question of whether change is actually possible, we should first remember that change is not only possible but inevitable. The urgent question for us today is what sort of change we demand, and the challenge now for each of us is to examine our role as contributors to the process, and to make those necessary adjustments according to our own conclusions and conscience. In doing so there exists the possibility of contributing towards a common good. Does an artist have the power to change things? Does a preacher or a professor or a plumber? Arundhati Roy suggests a way forward:
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness -- and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling -- their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: we be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Let there be a celebration of all the prophets who dare to speak truth to kings.
May Ayres and Michael Perry