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July 6th, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: Reflections on American Independence Day

Freethought San Marcos: A column

“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

-– Frederick Douglass, 1857

The above words, spoken by the abolitionist and human rights advocate Frederick Douglass during a speech commemorating the emancipation of West Indian slaves, provide a clear vision of what freedom requires. It requires action. It requires struggle. For me, the struggle for freedom is the essence of patriotism, but it is rarely the subject of annual essays on the anniversary of the American day of independence.

Too often, patriotism is associated with nationalism and particularly with militarism. It is often accompanied by jingoism, not to mention chauvinism, arrogance, and conceit. But for both the ancient Greeks and the writers of the Enlightenment, patriotism was concerned with devotion to humanity and the common good, to individual responsibility for creating a just society (though some failed to include slaves, women, and people of color in this worldview).

Today, many assume that a patriot is a person who fervently salutes the flag, recites the Pledge of Allegiance, sings the Star Spangled Banner, and supports all of this country’s wars. I prefer Frederick Douglass’s vision. It is a vision that equates love of country with making that country honor its people’s rights, and treat all people of the world with respect.

To be a patriot means that one must struggle against injustice, not just for the group of which you may be a part, but for all people, no matter their race, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, political belief, religion, or capabilities.

It is not enough to agree that injustice is wrong. Patriotism requires that we do something about the injustice. This is the foundation of America. While I honor our founders for their patriotism, I recognize that there have been many more patriots since, and few of them were politicians.

Journalist I. F. Stone reminded us, during his illustrious career of holding our national government accountable, that all governments lie. Stone demonstrated that over and over again, usually citing the government’s own documents as proof. He tried, and often succeeded, to create justice out of injustice.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with many others, organized a campaign to compel this country, controlled by men who owned property, to allow women the vote. In 1848, she (along with others) re-wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence to read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…” She went on to delineate the “long train of abuses” suffered by women in the United States. It was 72 years later when women in the United States were able finally to vote. Today, women continue to be paid less than men for the same work and are kept in subordinate positions in many of our institutions (particularly religious institutions).

Throughout our history, many Americans have struggled against many forms of oppression–slavery, inhumane working conditions, exploitive wages, segregation, sexual degradation, the genocide of indigenous populations, imperialism, war, subversion of other countries, assassination of foreign leaders, denigration of women, and other abuses of power.

To the extent these struggling Americans have been successful, we have become a better nation, and a better people. But clearly more struggle is needed. Not one of these problems has been fully resolved. And that is the story of the human condition. Just as our ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, had to struggle each day to find food sufficient to keep them alive, so too do we have to continually struggle to create a just society, one that improves the well-being of everyone.

But from our expansionist history, we have learned that an unrestrained foreign policy results in the oppression of people all over the globe, often by means of weapons and training that our country has supplied. And that foreign policy seems to have assumed a life of its own. Whether a Republican is president or a Democrat makes little difference. American hegemony over the world continues unabated, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America.

The struggle against this expansionist view has been going on since the country was founded, but because of technological advances, it has become more deadly during the past century than ever before. And the struggle continues. Rita Lasar, who lost a brother on 9/11 at the World Trade Center, wrote the following:

“In the months after the disaster, I often heard how Sept. 11 changed the world. But I don’t think the attacks changed the world. And to the extent that Americans believe that Sept. 11 changed the world, it is because they don’t know much about the world in which they live.”

“I have never heard anyone say that the horrific massacres of 1994 in Rwanda – which took more than 500,000 lives – changed the world. Nor have I ever been told that Indonesia’s massacre of 200,000 East Timorese during a 20-year span changed the world. I have not even heard that the daily loss of 8,000 souls in sub-Saharan Africa due to AIDS changed the world.”

“Were these people less important than my dear brother?”

“Despite my own personal grief, I must conclude that, in light of these far greater calamities, Sept. 11 did not change the world. What it did, in its own terrible way, was invite Americans to join the world, which is already a very troubled place. The question is whether we will accept that invitation.”

So far, the answer to Lasar’s question has been “no.” The United States intends to dominate the world, not join it. For American patriots everywhere, this must be our struggle today. We may struggle with many other issues, but the one that should be paramount is to put an end to the American attitude that we have a right to dominate the rest of the world. Lasar explained, “We can conclude that we are alone, that we owe the world nothing and that the world owes us everything. …

Or we can open our eyes and see the abundance of opportunities for making the planet a safer and more just place, by actively participating in international organizations, multilateral treaties and protocols that advocate peace and social equality.”

“We can no longer afford a go-it-alone approach. If we want the world’s help in getting at the roots of terrorism, we are going to have to start helping the rest of the world. We are going to have to comprehend that there are millions of people around the globe who understand all too well the horror of tragedies like Sept. 11.”

This struggle will require all the patriotic fervor that we can muster. But true patriots will step forward and accept the challenge.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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