“There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.” (Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” 1852)
One hundred and forty seven years ago
that charge was leveled at the United States by a former slave who judged
America’s actions since its founding against the principles that this nation
presented to the world as the basis for its existence: the rights of humans to
self governance, to life, to liberty, and to happiness. These are his words as
he addressed his fellow citizens on the 4th of July: “… your
celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national
greatness, swelling vanity; … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow
mockery; your sermons and thanksgivings … mere bombast, fraud, deception,
impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a
nation of savages.”
Today, what has changed? True, we no
longer sell humans like cattle in our town squares, no longer confine slaves to
the whips of overseers, no longer create unjust laws to discriminate those we
find inferior, no longer subdue our fellow humans with force of chains or
cudgel or hose or noose, not here, not in these United States. But today
America is not confined to an east coast or a west coast; today America
occupies Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine and under International Law must
provide for those who live under its occupation.
Isn’t this the conundrum Obama
faces as he confronts the inevitable vote he must make at the United Nations
Security Council when it acts on the UNCHR Goldstone Report? How does this man,
whose wife is a descendent of slaves, whose father comes from a land that has
suffered under colonialism, sit before the council of the world devoted to the
security of all, and veto a motion that would force the nation of Israel to
face the consequences of its inhumanity to its neighbors and its disregard for
International Law? What has changed? Does Obama’s vote raise the specter that
the United States could be prosecuted for its crimes as well? Listen again to
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
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What has changed is the ancestry of the
man in the White House, a man of color that knows the America Douglass
describes. He has heard these words before, for twenty years before he was
elected to the Presidency, words spoken by a preacher he admired, a preacher
that married him to Michelle, a preacher that lived through the years of
segregation but refused to be subjugated. These are the words of Reverend
Jeremiah Wright: “We took this country by terror away from the Sioux, the
Apache, the Arikara, the Comanche, the Arapaho, the Navajo. Terrorism. We have
supported state terrorism versus the Palestinians and black South Africans, and
now we are indignant because the stuff that we have done overseas is now
brought back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to
roost. Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. And terrorism begets
What has changed that this President
must confront or be the face of falsehood before the world? Both Jeremiah
Wright and Frederick Douglass identify the same shameful source that marks
indelibly this country as savage, one living in slavery, the other bonded in
segregation, both products of a mindset that accepted and tolerated the ethnic
cleansing by its founders as legitimate practice to establish a nation while
proposing that all men are created equal. Today, the state of Israel, our “only
friend in the mid-east and the only democracy in the mid-east” cites that very
mindset as accepted rationale for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian
people. “Israel is … unfortunately located, gentrifying a pretty bad
neighborhood. But the world is full of dislocated peoples, and we ourselves
live in a country where the Indians were pushed out of the way so that – oh,
what irony! – the owners of slaves could spread liberty and democracy from sea
to shining sea. As for Europe, who today cries for the Greeks of Anatolia or
the Germans of Bohemia?” (Richard Cohen, July 25, 2006, “No, It’s Survival”).
How ironic indeed, that a people given international approval to form a
homeland on someone else’s land would find genocide acceptable as a means to
establish a democracy that offers self-government to members of a religion but
not to others, liberty for the chosen but oppression for the occupied, and
happiness for those who conform and obey but not for those segregated and
Martin Luther King broke the law in
order to correct the law; defied the government in order to save the nation
from further terror; and confronted power with principle to save the nation’s
soul. Perhaps it’s time for this President to stand tall against those who
control by stealth, who wrap and so enslave our representatives in chains of
campaign contributions, who shackle our military and hence our children in
unending wars that benefit the merchants of munitions, and seek
self-gratification at the expense of selflessness.
Now is the time for this President to stand against the Eurocentric colonial mindset that has enslaved too many for too long. Now is the time for this President to stand against those who continue America’s centuries of plunder and pillage at the expense of the masses who bare the brunt of our merciless power. Now is the time for meaningful change, even at the expense of personal power, if the principle that drives the decision recognizes the inherent right of all that fall beneath the boots of America’s force to a life of dignity and respect. Now is the time to break the bonds that tie the United States and its people to the criminal state being brought before the Security Council to face justice, to free America to walk in peace in the world and to feel the life giving force of the ideals that give America meaning. Then and only then will America be able to bury the words of Douglass and King and Wright as jeremiads that taught the way to truth by condemning the path of falsehood.
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