Don’t Let the President Define Independence Day With Tanks

There are some years when the celebration of America’s birthday is pretty straightforward. I know, things have  never been perfect, but often July 4th feels to me a good moment to salute a country that gives the people who live in it opportunities to make it a better place. Today, though, the president of the country is creating a militarist spectacle in Washington while serious historians and less serious politicians are debating whether the United States is operating concentration camps (rather than merely ‘internment’ camps that make money for investors) at the border. I think of these lines from the great novelist Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive: “Euphemisms lead us to tolerate the unacceptable. And, eventually, to forget. Against a euphemism, remembrance. In order to not repeat.”

I like to write hopeful messages on July 4th. Normally, I’d find a way to cite Frederick Douglass, who wrote with pride of the best aspects of the American experiment:

A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.

But today the “narrow and bigoted people among ourselves” are in the White House, and they are running roughshod over the best of American values. They demonize the most vulnerable, and then they are offended when their cruelties are exposed. They are undermining inquiry in our universities, and they are taking steps to reduce access to the educational opportunities that are still are best tool for reducing inequality and promoting democracy.

The Fourth of July can remind us that if we don’t renew the American experiment, the possibility of “achieving our country,” others will do it for us. Historian Jill Lepore has recently has recently pointed out who is filling the void:

Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence.

We don’t have to allow the president to define Independence Day with militarism in Washington and with cruel dehumanization at the border. Whatever our political affiliation or ideological proclivities, we can use July 4th to imagine other ways to work for a better democracy and a more inclusive and just community.

But let’s be hopeful. Let’s end with the Sage of Concord. Here’s some excerpts from a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, recited on July 4, 1857:

United States! the ages plead,—
Present and Past in under-song,—
Go put your creed into your deed,
Nor speak with double tongue.

For sea and land don’t understand,
Nor skies without a frown
See rights for which the one hand fights
By the other cloven down.

Be just at home; then write your scroll
Of honor o’er the sea,
And bid the broad Atlantic roll,
A ferry of the free.

A ferry of the free. Happy 4th!

 

Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July

One of the most stirring speeches I know was given by Frederick Douglass for Independence Day: “What to the Slave is the 4th of July.” It was delivered in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852. You can find the full speech here; below are some excerpts.

To say now that America was right, and England wrong, is exceedingly easy. Everybody can say it; the dastard, not less than the noble brave, can flippantly discant on the tyranny of England towards the American Colonies. It is fashionable to do so; but there was a time when to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies, tried men’s souls. They who did so were accounted in their day, plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men. To side with the right, against the wrong, with the weak against the strong, and with the oppressed against the oppressor! Here lies the merit, and the one which, of all others, seems unfashionable in our day.

What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia, which, if committed by a black man, (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgement that the slave is a moral, intellectual and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws, in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!

 …

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

 …

You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You glory in your refinement and your universal education yet you maintain a system as barbarous and dreadful as ever stained the character of a nation — a system begun in avarice, supported in pride, and perpetuated in cruelty. You shed tears over fallen Hungary, and make the sad story of her wrongs the theme of your poets, statesmen and orators, till your gallant sons are ready to fly to arms to vindicate her cause against her oppressors; but, in regard to the ten thousand wrongs of the American slave, you would enforce the strictest silence, and would hail him as an enemy of the nation who dares to make those wrongs the subject of public discourse! You are all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland; but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You discourse eloquently on the dignity of labor; yet, you sustain a system which, in its very essence, casts a stigma upon labor. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a threepenny tax on tea; and yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together…

Frederick Douglass, who himself escaped from slavery, found reason to hope for the future even as he would “pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.” He saw a future worth fighting for. On this 4th of July, so should we!