News & Politics

Are We Being True to Our July 4th Values? Yes — That’s Exactly the Problem

The very purpose of the Declaration was to justify violence.

Photo Credit: mikeledray / Shutterstock.com

Another July 4th of hot dogs, historical confusion, and military worship has come and gone. This year of all years, it's a sadly missed opportunity to advance a much-needed conversation.

Clearly, a great turning is underway.

Perhaps it is toward extinction or at best a drastic decline in the quality of life for billions.

Unfortunately, we have created lots of ways to get there. Nuclear catastrophe. Pandemics on a scale never seen before. The acceleration of ecological collapse already evident worldwide. The incremental expansion of human on human violence, from family abuse and a little war here to a lot of war there. Maybe in the mad pursuit of domination and stuff, the grinding extraction of life-sustaining resources, followed by pumping waste back into the planet itself will lead to deep economic collapse.

Individually or in combination these dangers may seem remote. Until they happen to you. And you. And you.

Too dire? Isn’t there a chance that something profoundly better could be on the horizon? Absolutely.

One thing is for sure—the values we derive from July 4, 1776, won’t prevent extinction, let alone get us to a better way.

When you drill all the way to the bedrock core of that project, the net result is permanent hypocrisy. For every lofty ideal in the Declaration, then later the Constitution, there is an offsetting commitment to white supremacy, patriarchy, and violence.

Few people know a single thing that’s in the Declaration beyond the Preamble’s paean to all men being created equal. So the reference to “merciless Indian savages,” would probably come as a surprise to many.

Furthermore, we don’t usually think of it this way, but the very purpose of the Declaration was to justify violence. Not that the violence required to seize territory and enforce slavery wasn’t already well established by 1776.

Then there is the enduring power of the original Constitution. That’s the document that codified the inalienable rights of slave owners with the language: 

“No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

It’s not that the white settler colonialists invented hypocrisy. That’s been around a long time. But enshrining it in the fiber of creating a unique, or if you prefer exceptional, nation-state? That was new. And the debate ever since has been restricted within a very narrow range. It’s as though the entire length of the football field was ten yards instead of 100.

Unfair, some might say because the Constitution allows for self-repair as evidenced by the abolition of slavery and other amendments. True—up to a point.

As we learned from Standing Rock, efforts to decimate Indigenous people continue. As they have continuously for 500 years.

It took the bloodiest civil war in human history to emancipate the slaves. Only after the fact was the Constitution then amended. Previously, other nations had already abolished slavery with very little bloodshed.

As if that weren’t enough, one hundred years later, in the 1960’s, scores more had to die so that millions of African Americans could vote.

Women didn’t achieve the franchise until almost 150 years after Independence.

And yet those issues remain unsettled. Relentless struggles to preserve hard-won voting rights are still required and often fail.

In the name of exporting our “freedom,” millions were killed in the Philippines, Hawaii, Latin America, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, and numerous other sovereign nations. Success at regulating guns and the astronomical homicide and suicide rates they deliver is minuscule. We lead the so-called civilized world in incarceration.

Free speech? Peaceful transitions of power? Tell that to Mrs. Lincoln. Or members of the John and Robert Kennedy families. Or the families of Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodman, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, Harvey Milk, and so many more, less well known. At the cost of paraphrasing Donald Trump, I would prefer a country that has fewer martyrs, not more.

That’s why I think trying to change attitudes and behavior by proclaiming that we are not living up to our “American” values is misguided. We are living up to our values. That’s the problem, not the solution.

We seesaw endlessly between two-wrongs-make-a-right arguments. For example, according to some, it’s OK to separate children from would be immigrants now because, as a recent newspaper headline put it, “Yes, Obama separated families at the border, too.” Yup. And so did many other presidents before him.

Can there be any better example of the hypocritical nature of our politics than the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the Muslim travel ban? In justifying excluding mostly Muslims from the country, the Court retroactively finally said that putting Japanese people in camps seventy-five years ago wasn’t really Constitutional after all.

If it seems we are having pretty much the same arguments today that we had 242 years ago, it’s because, broadly speaking, we are. Actually, it boils down to just one argument. Occasionally the power and privilege of white male property owners gets a little bit mitigated.

Then, regression to the mean sets in and they more than regain any losses. To put it another way, white male property owners disproportionately reap the rewards of the economy and dominate the politics of the nation not a bit less today than they did in 1776 and arguably even more so.

Is there a way to get out of this hamster cage? Yes.

A year before he was assassinated, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the danger of “spiritual death.” He told us that we needed a “radical revolution of values.” Stop being the greatest exporters of violence in the world, King said. Repudiate militarism, materialism, and racism, he urged.

Today would be a good day to start.

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Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based writer and activist.  He is co-editor with Karin Aguilar-San Juan of The People Make The Peace: Lessons From the Vietnam Antiwar Movement