Howard Zinn, Mark Twain, Edwin Moses and me, but first, Frederick Douglass. Dave Zirin, one of a select group of sportswriters who really matter, introduces “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, a speech delivered by Douglass in 1852.
Here’s hoping people take the time to read the entirety of Douglass’s brilliant speech. Even though his were words that spoke directly to his moment in history, they still ring with an unsettling power.
As Douglass says, “Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
The speech itself is lengthy, eloquent and worthy. In my estimation, it is best read prior to hamburgers and fireworks.
‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’, by Frederick Douglass By Dave Zirin (The Nation)
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
In times of old, when I was blogging regularly at NA Confidential, each time I’d mention Howard Zinn’s name there’d be pushback. I thought it might be fun to go back and refresh my memory as to where the pushback originated, but hell, it seems like even more fun to mention Howard Zinn again.
“The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent, and labor power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, leeways, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen, winning tickets in lotteries. There is none that disperses its controls more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media–none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty.”
— Howard Zinn 1922-2010
Empathy is an appreciation of another’s point of view, often defined as “standing in someone else’s shoes.” Zinn utilized empathy with considerable eloquence, and as a starting point for harnessing the experiences of the oppressed to deconstruct mythology. In times of diversionary vitriol, it’s important to remember that shoes come in different shapes and sizes.
A People’s History is the only volume to tell America’s story from the point of view of—and in the words of—America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers. As historian Howard Zinn shows, many of our country’s greatest battles—the fights for a fair wage, an eight-hour workday, child-labor laws, health and safety standards, universal suffrage, women’s rights, racial equality—were carried out at the grassroots level, against bloody resistance.
July 4 offers an excellent annual opportunity to reconsider unexamined assumptions.
On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.
But why restrict these reconsiderations to just one day a year?
… Mark Twain, having been called a “traitor” for criticizing the U.S. invasion of the Philippines, derided what he called “monarchical patriotism.” He said: “The gospel of the monarchical patriotism is: ‘The King can do no wrong.’ We have adopted it with all its servility, with an unimportant change in the wording: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had – the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it, all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word, Patriotism.”
I suppose I’ll be criticized for quoting Zinn (and Douglass, and Twain) again this year, but it doesn’t do much to alter my perspective.
Speaking of quotes, there’s another one I’ve been trying to locate for years, although at this point I’m forced to concede that the words I recall may or may not actually have been spoken. But I continue to insist they were uttered by the track and field star Edwin Moses during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
It was a hideous spectacle, the Games of the XXIII Olympiad. Good intentions notwithstanding, the modern Olympics have been politicized from the very start, as I suspect they also were in ancient Greece. Apart from the year 1984 serving as a convenient pretext for rereading of George Orwell’s novel of the same name, it also was an election year and the very pinnacle of the Cold War, Reaganism and Thatcherism.
Not unexpectedly the Hollywood filmmaker David Wolper was enlisted to “produce” the Olympics for global television, with every last movie gimmick trick from the arsenal of the Ben Hur generation in La La Land duly deployed and exaggerated for patriotic effect. Unfortunately for the RayGunners, all this mind-boggling garishness was not witnessed in person by the Warsaw Pact nations; they all boycotted the Olympics except for Nicolae “Conducator” Ceausescu’s Romania, for which the U.S. State Department happily rewarded the dictator with enough slack to oppress his own people for another five years, until they deposed and executed him.
At some point amid the propaganda extravaganza, Moses won yet another medal and was interviewed by a fawning broadcaster, who was no doubt scandalized to hear the athlete comment that contrary to all the bells and whistles, he considered himself a citizen of the universe – or something like that.
I can’t actually prove Moses said it, but no matter. If he did not, someone else did, and either way it was a light bulb moment for me. I’d long been arguing about the impossibility of “proving” irrational religious beliefs, but it suddenly became clear that mankind’s enduring instinct for sectarianism and tribalism, amplified to deafening pitch with the inception of the modern nation state’s industrialized toolmaking, predates religious superstition. Religion is a mere symptom, not the disease.
Consequently, for me this notion of mindless patriotism in the sense of publicly demonstrating one’s “love” of country in knee-jerk, childlike ways is pure nonsense, every bit as much as the blind worship of objects, whether they come in the form of a saint’s toenail, a totem or a flag. Humans have brains, and it might be helpful to use them on occasion. Love might be a many splendored thing, but it’s better directed at other humans and not debatable abstractions that serve primarily to reinforce existing power structures.
That’s because we’re humans first. I was born the same way those guys on the “other” side were, and ultimately I’ll die in precisely the same fashion as someone from Tibet, Chile or South Africa. The rest of it is sheer serendipity, and should be regarded as such. Surely we have better things to do with the brief time we have.
“Go back to where you came from” is another bromide returning regularly to the news cycle, and sentiments like this always have been primeval screams revealing an abysmally ignorant point of view, especially as they pertain to “love” of a nation state founded on the basis of welcoming humans from elsewhere to come slaughter and enslave the ones already here.
It’s even less defensible from the perspective of humanity as a whole, although in this, as in most all similar circumstances, the eternal imperatives of capital accumulation and the concurrent preservation of wealth and privilege for the few depend on the reinforcement of arbitrary divisions, as Zinn notes above.
The disease isn’t limited to Americans, although we seem to be in the process of perfecting it. It’s neither a Republican nor a Democratic affliction, as it flourishes across the political spectrum. When you rant at another human being to conform to your precepts or else get the hell out, the sound you’re hearing off in the distance is the One Percent laughing uproariously all the way to the bank. The fewest with the mostest simply adore the ease with which you are distracted by trivialities.
Some readers are red-faced: But what about our brave men and women in the military, fighting to preserve our freedom?
Well, wouldn’t it be great if the deprived weren’t compelled by threat of violence to preserve wealth and power by killing others who are in precisely the same predicament as them?
Since the dawn of civilization wars have been fought by humans who quite honestly are chosen to die for someone else’s money, property, status and religion, not their own. Violence is an abomination at any level of the human experience, but it doesn’t get much worse than when it is amalgamated and wielded at a nation state’s massive economy of scale. I respect the soldiers quite a lot – so much so that I’d like to join with other fellow humans to determine ways of making their sacrifices less predictably common.
If this requires a certain redirection of pitchforks, all the better.
When can we begin? After all, the fireworks MIGHT end by midday on July 5.