I've written on this theme before, and now seems like a good time to reconsider it. I was actually reminded of it yesterday by a newcomer to our land, a very warm-hearted and intelligent young man named Majo.
Majo is from India, and has recently come to settle here in America. He works beside me at the office where we each earn our bread. On Friday afternoon, as we were leaving for the holiday weekend, he smiled and wished me a "Happy Independence Day."
I'm wondering now if the wording of this simple wish might take you as much by surprise as it did me. No one calls it that: it's merely "the Fourth of July." But as I thought about it, that word, independence, rang through me with a strangely unsettling reverberation—like nervous laughter at a funeral.
This should be the most joyful and holy day on our calendar—more than Christmas, Easter, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving combined—because it is a celebration of Independence. That is, a celebration of personal freedom. This is not the Bush notion of Independence as the freedom to occupy, destroy, and despoil foreign nations, while raping the environment of our only planet and looking down one's nose at those who dare question the validity or morality of such freedom-to-debase-everyone-not-in-my-ingroup. This is not the freedom of Rovespeak to manipulate a once-free press and to brand as a liberal terrorist-lover anyone who speaks out against torture, extreme rendition, or a war built upon a nest of lies.
No: the independence that Majo reminded me of is all about the freedom to follow the unique and never-before-charted course of one's individual destiny in life. In a document that many of us (and even more of our children) have either mostly forgotten or never known, this is specifically described as one of the "inalienable rights" that human beings have been given by a beneficent Creator (whether that Creator is Jesus' Dad, Yahweh, Allah, Tao, Brahma, or another with no particular name is wisely left unconsidered—though there is a reference to Laws of Nature and God, as of a single Force, in support of the premise that the nations of the world should be "separate and equal"). Perhaps it would help us to look at a little more of this interesting document, and see what it might have to teach us—and what we might have to teach it.
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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These are some truly amazing statements—especially today. Governments are instituted among people of equal status before God and Nature, with the purpose of securing and furthering Life, Liberty, Safety, and Happiness (we're going to update that reference to "men", and I doubt that even many Conservatives would quarrel with that) . Wow.
But all is not as it seems. Even for those of us who pretend to be familiar with this document, our ability to quote it ends with that famous paragraph. The really interesting parts come after these familiar but still astonishing statements; for it is there that we find that "all men" did not (and still does not) include "all men."
In his epochal A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn points out the inconsistencies. In the subsequent listing of offenses noted by the Declaration's author (Thomas Jefferson), which comprise the substance of the complaint against British rule, we find the following:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
So those "merciless Indian Savages" do not rate for inclusion among "all men." Nor, it seems, did blacks: for even though Jefferson had written a clause into the original document denouncing the practice and trade of slavery (I am drawing again on Zinn's remarkable research), the Congress deleted that section from the final form of the Declaration. And since Jefferson himself was a slaveowner, there may have been some ambivalence on his part once push came to shove.
Nevertheless, this Declaration of Independence seems to be a document that could still guide us today, but only if we will allow that it needs to be updated and revised on some very serious points (the same goes for our Constitution as well). Aside from the explicit and implicit prejudice against women, minorities, and the Native population of America, we could justifiably ask whether this document's stated grievances were truly a justification for the grueling and bloody war that ensued.
One fairly clear answer to this last question that we could give today is, "the American war of independence was no more justified then than the war in Iraq is justified today." Even Jefferson himself had this to say about the causus belli of 1776: "so inscrutable is the arrangement of causes and consequences in this world that a two-penny duty on tea, unjustly imposed in a sequestered part of it, changes the condition of all its inhabitants." (I found this quoted in an amazing new book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, called Freakonomics).
As a matter of fact, a far clearer answer would be, "King George was a petty tyrant who ruled our people; Saddam Hussein was a petty tyrant who had zero influence, threat, or power over us except what he could exact via manipulation of his oil reserves." In other words, and to the highly questionable extent that any war can be said to be justified, the American war of independence was a far worthier cause than this morass in Iraq.
And this takes us back to that document from which our American nation was born. What, in fact, were the stated complaints against the King and England, that started all this? How would they apply, if at all, among nations today—maybe even our nation?
Frankly, it even starts off scary—and it gets worse from there. Here's the beginning, which I'll present without comment:
The history of the present King is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
I will swear on a stack of Bibles, Korans, and other holy books, that the only words I've taken out of the above statement are "of Great Britain." Incidentally, though, the King's name was George; so let's see what happens when "facts are submitted to a candid world." (click the table to enlarge it)
Now Jefferson was careful to warn us that "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes."
Such as, for example, getting a blow job from an intern at the Oval Office. But once again, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
Now if you don't think we've quite reached the point of "absolute Despotism," maybe you should talk to some of the mothers, fathers, widows, widowers, and children of the 1,744 Americans killed in combat in Iraq, or many of the 13,074 wounded.
I have already formed my own conclusions about this; now it is time for you to come to yours. If you agree that it is time to "alter or to abolish, and to institute new Government", then let Congress hear about it; and let your local media outlets hear you, too. It is time.