SOLOMON: Marching to the Beat of an Indifferent Drum

The war coverage is becoming routine. Missiles fly, bombs fall. Live briefings from the Pentagon -- featuring talkative generals, colorful charts and gray videos -- appear on cable television like clockwork. The war on Yugoslavia is right in front of us and very far away. The media atmosphere is numbing.Early this month, the anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. came and went. In the media world, he's presented as a dreamer, a martyr on a postage stamp.But in the real world, during his last years, America's resources flowed toward war -- and he insisted on speaking forthrightly."I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism," King said.But adjustment to that madness is all around us.Often, it's simply a matter of silent acquiescence. Yet, there's plenty of enthusiasm to go around.When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reflected on the first dozen days of what he called NATO's "surgical bombing," he engaged in a common style of easy punditry. "Let's see what 12 weeks of less than surgical bombing does," he wrote. "Give war a chance."Sleek B-2 stealth bombers and F-117A jets appear in file footage on TV networks. Journalists talk with keen anticipation about Apache AH-64 attack helicopters on the way. Military analysts tell us about the great things such aircraft can do. Reverence for the latest weaponry is acute. More than just enthusiasm, it approaches idolatry.Meanwhile, the ghost of an antiwar movement seems to haunt the current media mania for war. Would-be peacemakers are presumed to be foolish rather than blessed. "Give war a chance" -- ha ha. Today, in the media air, there's more than a whiff of mockery toward Americans who pled and struggled for peace three decades ago.One of those people, Martin Luther King, was widely vilified when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. At the time, that war still had significant public backing -- and enormous media support."On some positions," King said in a speech to a convention of the California Democratic Council in mid-March 1968, "cowardice asks the question: 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question: 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question: 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question: 'Is it right?'"King moved way beyond the media frame of debate when he asserted: "The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.'"He observed that "the bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America." Major news outlets responded with condemnations. A Washington Post editorial clucked that King "diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people." A New York Times editorial, describing Vietnam and racial equality as "distinct and separate" issues, accused King of doing "a disservice to both."Despite all the media disincentives, King was willing to speak clearly about militarism. He recognized that a society transfixed with building up arsenals and mobilizing troops would find its priorities horrendously skewed: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."Rather than being a fatalist, King saw reasons for hope: "There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from re-ordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war."For all the lip-service that journalists have devoted to Martin Luther King during the 1990s, few seem interested in his vital messages about the madness of military zeal. If he'd been a booster of militarism, then his views on the subject would be cited by top politicians and pundits in Washington -- especially at a time like this. Instead, what he had to say remains deeply buried in the nation's memory hole.In retrospect, a decision to stand in the way of a big parade may look simple. But at the time, the forward march of militarism can be quite intimidating. Now, as the media drumbeat quickens, many choices loom ahead.Norman Solomon's new book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."


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