Andrew Bacevich, "When Poisons Curdle."

There's something that's poisoning democracy in the United States. Retired US army commander turned historian and author, Andrew J. Bacevich, writes that it's the toxin Martin Luther King identified as the blend of racism, materialism and militarism.  

The predicament in which we find ourselves today stems from our reluctance to admit to the crippling interaction among the components of the giant triplets he described in that speech. True, racism, extreme materialism, and militarism each deserve — and separately sometimes receive — condemnation. But it’s the way that the three of them sustain one another that accounts for our nation’s present parlous condition.

Let me suggest that King’s prescription remains as valid today as when he issued it more than half a century ago. Sadly, however, neither the American people nor the American ruling class seem any more inclined to take that prescription seriously today than I was in 1967. We persist in rejecting Dr. King’s message.

Martin Luther King is enshrined in American memory as a great civil rights leader and rightly so. Yet as his Riverside Church Address made plain, his life’s mission went far beyond fighting racial discrimination. His real purpose was to save America’s soul, a self-assigned mission that was either wildly presumptuous or deeply prophetic.

...A devotion to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness defines the essence of the American way of life. So the Founders declared and so we are schooled to believe. Well, yes, replied Dr. King in 1967, but racism, materialism, and militarism have likewise woven themselves into the fabric of American life. As much as we may prefer to pretend otherwise, those giant triplets define who we are as much as Jefferson’s Declaration or the Framers’ Constitution do.

Racism Resurgent

For various reasons, Donald Trump not least among them, racism today again ranks atop the hierarchy of issues commanding national attention. Political progressives, champions of diversity, cultural elites, and even multinational corporations attentive to the bottom line profess their commitment to ending racism (as they define it) finally and forever. Some not-trivial portion of the rest of the population — the white nationalists chanting “You will not replace us,” for example — hold to another view. The elimination of racism, assuming such a goal is even plausible, will surely entail a further protracted struggle.

The Places the United States Bombs

The places that the United States bombs, invades, and/or occupies typically fall into the category of what President Trump once disparaged as “shithole countries.” The inhabitants tend to be impoverished, non-white, non-English speaking, and, by American standards, often not especially well-educated. They subscribe to customs and religious traditions that many Americans view as primitive if not altogether alien.

That the average G.I. should deem the lives of Afghans or Iraqis of lesser value than the life of an American may be regrettable, but given our history it can hardly be surprising. A persistent theme of American wars going back to the colonial era is that, once the shooting starts, difference signifies inferiority.

Although no high-ranking government official and no senior military officer will admit it, racism permeates our post-9/11 wars. And as is so often the case, poisons generated abroad have a curious knack for finding their way home.

With few exceptions, Americans prefer to ignore this reality. Implicit in the thank-you-for-your-service air kisses so regularly lofted toward the troops is an illusion that wartime service correlates with virtue, as if combat were a great builder of character. Last month’s assault on the Capitol should finally have made it impossible to sustain that illusion.

Enough Is Never Enough

Then there’s King’s third triplet, hidden in plain sight: the “extreme materialism” of a people intent on satisfying appetites that are quite literally limitless in a society that has become ever more economically unequal. Americans have always been the people of more. Enough is never enough. True in 1776, this remains true today.

A nation in which “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights” take precedence over people, King warned in 1967, courts something akin to spiritual death. King’s primary concern was not the distribution of material wealth, but the obsessive importance attributed to accumulating and possessing it.

Embracing equity as a major theme, the Biden administration holds to a different view. Its stated aim is to enable the “underserved and left behind” to catch up, with priority attention given to “communities of color and other underserved Americans.” In short: more for some, but not for others.

Such an effort will inevitably produce a backlash. Given a culture that deems billionaires the ultimate fulfillment of the American dream, the only politically acceptable program is one that holds out the promise of more for all. Since its very first days, the purpose of the American Experiment has been to satisfy this demand for more, even if perpetuating that effort today inflicts untold damage on the natural environment.

To Salvage the Soul of America.

Whether wittingly or not, when Joe Biden committed himself in 2020 to saving “the soul of America,” he was echoing Martin Luther King in 1967. But saving the nation’s soul requires more than simply replacing Trump in the Oval Office

Saving that soul requires moral imagination, a quality not commonly found in American politics. George Washington probably possessed it. Abraham Lincoln surely did. For a brief moment when delivering his Farewell Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in a prophetic voice. So, too, did Jimmy Carter in his widely derided but enduringly profound “Malaise Speech” of 1979. But as this mere handful of examples suggests, the rough and tumble of political life only rarely accommodates prophets.

While Joe Biden may be a decent enough fellow, at no point in his long but not especially distinguished political career has he ever been mistaken for possessing prophetic gifts. Much the same can be said about the highly credentialed political veterans with whom he has surrounded himself: Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, Jake Sullivan, Janet Yellen, and the rest. When it comes to diversity, they check all the necessary boxes. Yet none of them gives even the slightest indication of grasping the plight of a nation held in the grip of King’s giant triplets.

As a devout Christian and a preacher of surpassing eloquence, King knew that salvation begins with an admission of sinfulness, followed by repentance. Only then does redemption become a possibility.

Only by acknowledging the evil caused by the simultaneous presence of racism and materialism and militarism at the heart of this country will it be remotely possible for the United States to take even the first few halting steps toward redemption. We await the prophetic voice that will awaken the American people to this imperative.


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