Saturday, 3 July 2010

American Independence Day: A Cause for Celebration or Mourning?

"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" - Dr. Samuel Johnson

The Declaration of Independence in 1776 was composed by a committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson did most of the writing, with input from the committee. This was followed by the formation of the US constitution in 1789 and the first 10 amendments to it, collectively known as the “Bill of Rights”, passed in 1791. All these sets of documents have contributed significantly towards shaping the political history of the US. The core principles embedded in those documents form the basis of US-democracy; hence, the political institutions (Congress, Supreme Court and the President) should be functioning in accordance with those principles.

No matter how well intended and clearly worded the principles laid down are, what really matters is how those principle have been interpreted and applied. Just as the best judge is the deeds of an individual rather than the words uttered. Therefore, let us examine how the Declaration of Independence was applied by the founding fathers and the successive generations. Thomas Jefferson wrote the famous words in the declaration of independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

By the time the declaration was made, the European colonisers made the Native Americans virtually extinct, who were liquidated with ease when they got in the way of economic expansion, denied those “inalienable rights”. Before the apologists beat their breast over this assertion, remember that Native Americans could not have been subjugated, slaughtered and then herded like animals onto barren reservations, without the executive arm of the US legislature, that “forked tongue” player, the US army.

The reality of American society was all men were equal except the African-Americans. Therefore, it is perhaps convenient or a coincidence that Jefferson’s original draft included a denunciation of the slave trade, but it was edited out. In any case, Jefferson along with George Washington, James Madison, George Mason and many others who signed the declaration, continued to hold blacks in bondage. Recent scientific evidences have confirmed the rumours of Jefferson having illegitimate children through the black slaves held in captivity. Benjamin Franklin, who is reputed to be the staunchest opponent of slavery, but this position, was adopted later. In his earlier life, he profited from the domestic and international slave trade, complained about the ease with which slaves and servants ran off to the British army during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and staunchly defended slave-owning rebels during the Revolution.

Patrick Henry, who was the heroic fighter for independence, did even better, not only did he continue to hold black slaves, but he removed any Native Americans that dared get in the way of his making a killing in westward real estate. The African-Americans continued to suffer, subjected to mob violence, lynching, hanging and the continuous economic exploitation, used as cheap labour in the plantations and factories. Thus, it seems, the founding fathers meant that only the white men are equal and have those noble “inalienable rights”! This is how the founding fathers applied the declaration and surely, if the roots of a tree are weak it cannot bear good fruits.

Take the first amendment - the right to exercise free speech. The question is - it is a right for whom. The Arizona State Supreme Court, ruled in favour of the Tucson newspaper based on the First Amendment for publishing a letter that urged Americans to kill five Muslims, in retaliation for each death of an American soldier in Iraq. This was not treated as an incitement to violence, but the right to exercise free speech! A test of this law would be the same American court invoking the First Amendment, if someone wrote a letter calling for the execution of five pro-war Americans for every Iraqi killed - fat chance!

Perhaps, many of the African-Americans would easily identify with the court ruling, as it is the first step towards legitimising mob violence against another minority. We may get modern forms of mob lynching, hanging and burning of Muslims on the cross by those men in white hoods. However, thanks to modern day communications and the inflow of migrants, they have helped to elevate many Americans above this sort of behaviour, even though it runs deep in their culture and history!

The First Amendment is conveniently invoked, when some American citizens are calling for the indiscriminate execution of fellow American citizens. In contrast, when Shabir Ahmed, an Imam, spoke out against the United States, there was no First Amendment to protect him; he was fired from his local Mosque in Lodi, California. Shabir Ahmed merely voiced his opposition to the current US foreign policy; he did not incite anyone to kill. When such hypocritical behaviour is exhibited, one can see the merit and relevance of Noam Chomsky’s elaboration of the First Amendment: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those who we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration was finally adopted by the Continental Congress at the Pennsylvania State House. For sure, many Americans will celebrate the annual ritual of their independence day on the 4th July, but how many will reflect on the consistency (or lack of) in the behaviour of the nation, both past and present, compared to the towering words of Thomas Jefferson pronounced in the declaration of independence. How many Americans will remember the lessons learnt from the events that culminated in forming the Declaration of Independence? Below are the three of those significant events: 

a)       The unpopular Stamp Act of 1765 issued by the colonial British government, causing immense resentment. The act levied a stamp duty on various legal documents and publications in the British colonies in North America. Money raised through these taxes, was predominantly used to pay for the standing army protecting the fur trade in Canada, acquired from the French after the Seven Year’s War.

b)            Following the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts passed in 1767 by the British Parliament, which placed a tax on common products, such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea added more fuel to the fire; the Americans grew increasingly hostile to British attempts to levy more taxes on the colonies.

c)            Then the Boston Tea Party in 1773, this incident is perhaps the straw that broke the Camel’s back. The act allowed the British East India Company to sell the tea imported from China directly to the colonialist market without paying the colonial tax, which allowed it to undercut the local merchants. In response, a Boston mob threw over 340 crates of tea into Boston Harbour as a political protest. By 1775, fighting broke out; the 13 colonies sought independence from British rule and its despotic British King, George III.

The history of US post independence has not proved much different to its former colonial masters. From the Spanish American war ignited by the fictitious Yellow Journalism, to the Iraq war initiated by the mythical WMDs, tells the same story, millions killed to make way for the American Empire. The numerous military bases around the world testify to this Empire, the US has merely replaced the British Empire.

Americans ought to remember the main significance of the Declaration of Independence, which is the quest for freedom of their nation from colonial Britain. At the very least, they should understand the rights of those occupied to resist the occupiers. Yet, ironically, the US gives unequivocal support to colonial Israel, and almost no consideration to the oppressed Palestinians, who are tainted as terrorists, rather than freedom fighters, like the founding fathers of the US.  

Far from being a champion of fighting colonialism, the US continues to exploit other lands through installing puppet regimes and oppressive dictators around the world. When they fail, it resorts to the old fashion colonialism of direct militarily occupation using dubious pretexts. Likewise, the “Bill of Rights” did not prevent the continuation of slavery, mob violence, hanging, lynching and other forms of brutality that continues until today; the world continues to witness, the torture and incarceration of innocent people through the US-led wars of fighting terror.

If there is anything to celebrate, it is the world seeing through the hype of these “forked tongues” writing noble constitutions, declaring one thing, and then applies barbarity and subjugation to the contrary.  

Yamin Zakaria (
London, UK

Published 4/7/2010

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