What to the Slave Is Your Fourth of July?
The Fourth of July is America’s Independence Day, one of the most important dates in the nation’s calendar, a day when myth and hypocrisy collide.
In 1852 Frederick Douglass, the self educated former slave and towering champion of the country’s abolitionist movement, was invited to deliver the keynote address at an event organized by a local anti-slavery society. The speech he delivered – later titled ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ – amounted to a searing indictment of the rank hypocrisy, which then and now describes this annual celebration to mark the country’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence from the British crown in 1776.
“What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Slavery was formerly abolished in America at the end of a brutal and bloody civil war that raged between 1861 and 1865, pitting the free states of the North, known as the Union, against the southern slaveholding states of the short-lived Confederacy.
This southern Confederacy, however, was merely the most obvious manifestation of the white supremacist character of a nation originally founded by white slave owners towards the end of the 18th century.
It is a nation whose development immediately thereafter came at the price of the extirpation and annihilation of the indigenous Indian population.
In the process a culture of violence and cruelty was established, reflected today in a gun culture as perverse as it is murderous. Chris Hedges, in his estimable book ‘Wages of Rebellion’, examines this culture in chilling detail.
“America has been formed and shaped by slave patrols, gunslingers, Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts detectives, gangs of strikebreakers, hired gun thugs, company militias, and the American Legion – originally right-wing World War I veterans who attacked union agitators…Vigilante groups in America are mostly white men who often prey on people of color and radicals. They are capitalism’s ideological vanguard, its shock troops used to break populist movements and tyrannize the oppressed.”
For many people of color, police departments across America fall into the category of the vigilante groups Hedges describes, given the shocking regularity with which unarmed black males in particular are victims of police shootings and brutality.
Despite the increasing polarization within American society between the super-rich and everyone else, American exceptionalism, cultivated and embraced by the country’s political and media class, has grown in tandem with the country’s overwhelming and overweening cultural, geopolitical, economic, and military might.
This sense of exceptionalism – rooted in a hypermasculine identity drawn from the myths surrounding the country’s frontier and pioneering past – has normalized and legitimized brutality and violence on a grand scale. For just as police departments within the country prey on people of color in the name of law and order, the US military has been deployed over many years against countries of color in the name of hegemony, with devastating and disastrous consequences.
When Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, proclaimed, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” during a commencement address he gave to graduates of the nation’s elite West Point Military Academy in 2014, he did so as the president who’d been party to the destruction and decimation of Libya in 2011; the president whose illegal drone war had killed thousands of civilians; the president who at home had failed to take any serious measures to end the mass incarceration that was introduced by his liberal ‘progressive’ predecessor Bill Clinton with his notorious omnibus crime bill in 1994.
In addition, Obama lauded American exceptionalism as the president who’d imprisoned Chelsea Manning for exposing the extent of US war crimes and atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it was also under his watch that Edward Snowden was forced to flee and seek sanctuary in Russia for daring to reveal the existence of a program of mass surveillance by the country’s National Security Agency in violation of the country’s constitution.
This is why it’s important to emphasize that Trump is not the aberration depicted by his liberal detractors. He is not the crude interruption of business as usual in the land of the free. He is merely its most honest face, lacking the finesse of his predecessors perhaps but completely in keeping with their willingness to assert the right of Washington to rule the world.
In the 1930s, retired Marine Major General Smedley Butler encapsulated the brute reality of US foreign policy in his famous anti-war speech, ‘War Is A Racket’, later expanded into a book of the same name:
“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
America’s record of directly and indirectly overthrowing national governments in almost every part of the world is as long as it is execrable. It has unleashed nuclear weapons against civilians in Japan, killed millions in Korea and Vietnam, destroyed Iraq, and as mentioned it was party to the destruction of Libya in 2011, providing succour to the most extreme and crazed terrorist organizations the world has seen.
In addition, Washington has over successive administrations engaged in economic warfare against multiple states at any given time, treating international law with naked and open disrespect.
In 1852, Frederick Douglass was under no illusions about the grim reality of America, as distinct from the myths employed to beguile its own people and people around the world into actually believing that it is the land of the free. Today, in 2019, we are talking about a nation that has arguably spilled more blood and wrought more devastation than any other in human history.
It is why the Fourth of July should not be a day of celebration but instead a day of mourning.
By John Wight