Point of View

Martin Luther King’s 'Triumvirate of Evil' still reigns

January 19, 2014 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday commemorates a great civil rights leader and purveyor of nonviolence. Yet he should also be remembered for his broader message that questioned the whole of American society, “that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation and the problem of war are all tied together.” He named these interrelated forces – racism, materialism and militarism – the “Triumvirate of Evil.” They are present as much today as they were 50 years ago.

His triple evils formed a vicious cycle of violence – “the most intractable evils of our world.” He proclaimed that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Now, half a century later, 58 percent of our federal budget’s discretionary spending is military-related – more than all other nations combined. Our country is first in the export of weapons, gun ownership and incarceration.

From the beginning of his rise to prominence, King advocated nonviolence as the only hope for civilization. Yet, we have become the leaders in a new form of warfare using weaponized drones, complete with a policy that selectively applies a “Just War” theory and justifies targeted assassinations, even though such strikes kill innocent bystanders along with a questionable list of “low-level suspects.” The constant presence of U.S. drones terrorizes populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, building hatred, resentment and revenge, all leading to more terrorist recruitment.

We live in a country where violence of all types – physical, cultural, structural, economic, personal and global – is the accepted and too often unchallenged norm. It is ubiquitous and inescapable: from the make-believe of movies, video games and TV shows to the real-time coverage of catastrophic events. Our political discourse is angry, not conciliatory. With the help of grants from the Department of Homeland Security, our local police forces are being transformed with military-grade weapons, training and tactics, creating a potential shift in their mission from “serve and protect” to “search and destroy.” Our nation experiences tragedies like the Washington, Sandy Hook and Colorado theater shootings, yet our elected representatives avoid any reasonable limits on gun ownership or control.

All violence is cumulative. It nurtures the context in which war and exploitation become palatable, natural and inevitable.

But King also attacked unrestrained capitalism. Why are so many Americans in poverty when we are the wealthiest nation in the world, he asked. “We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that they are unmoved by the suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.”

We strip lifesaving state and federal programs that serve our poor, unemployed and sick while bestowing greater wealth and power to a tiny and privileged elite. Resources for jobs, food, health care and education are depleted by an economy for the “haves” while marginalizing the “have-nots.” King added, “We suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.” Our wealth gap, some say, is the widest in our history. This elephant in the room will eventually crush us all.

In the final chapter of “Chaos or Community,” his last book, King wrote of a global World House where “all life is interrelated … caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He continued:

“We must rapidly begin a shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy.”

Fifty years later, isn’t it time we heed King’s words and turn our resources and human capacity away from violence and exploitation to building his dream of a beloved community? That would be a birthday present worth giving.

Curt A. Torell, Ph.D., of Carrboro is board treasurer of the Quaker House, an outpost for peace in Fayetteville.

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