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Labor Advocate Online

Reflections on Independence Day
by Bill Onasch

July 4, 2002

This holiday started off pretty good. I didn't have to rise at 4AM to get ready to drive a bus as I usually do most Thursdays. The boss is actually paying me to do whatever I want today. I plan to consume some good food and beverage, watch some baseball on television (the home team is on the road), and later view, from my front porch, some spectacular fireworks displays. Is this a great country or what?

Unfortunately I can't seem to resist looking at the news every day. That's why I find my sense of joy and gratitude for my native land disturbed. Most of the media appeals to "patriotism" are not only tasteless but often dishonest. It's an occasion for the bosses and their politicians to wrap their agendas in a Flag blessed by God.

Duty and Pride
If you define a patriot as one who loves and is proud of her/his country then I would claim to be a patriot. I enjoy visits to other countries but I've never considered living anywhere else. I'm proud that my country of origin has given the world Blues and Jazz; baseball and basketball; barbequed brisket and biscuits and gravy. When I got my draft notice I reported as instructed. I've taken my turn on jury duty. I vote in most elections. I've paid all my taxes and obey almost every law. I've tried to be a loyal American mensch.

Phonies and Hypocrites
But that's not good enough for those who choreograph official worship of Independence Day. They require unquestioned—indeed enthusiastic—obedience to those in power. They select what we need to know about our history. They determine what democratic rights must be sacrificed in the name of freedom. They direct us when to pray and how to pledge our allegiance. Dissidents who don't get with the program are invited to go to Afghanistan.

As well as being a loyal American I'm also proud to be one of those dissidents—and I'm not going anywhere. I plan to fight—till the day I die—all of these phony "patriots" and hypocritical "Christians," who try to sanctify not only war abroad but economic exploitation and repression of freedom here at home.

Diversity—Then and Now
We've heard the buzz word diversity a lot in recent years. Diversity on several levels has marked our country's history since July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence—currently enjoying a revival in favor because, unlike the Constitution, it mentions God—tried to ignore or paper over much of the diversity of that time.

The Declaration is famous for inspiring phrases such as "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Slaves, Indians, Women Excluded
However, we know that the framers of this document believed "all men" really just meant white male property holders. The fledgling capitalist class would try for several decades to maintain peaceful coexistence with the slave holders. I would recommend a reading of a speech by Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

The Declaration is silent about women.

The sole reference to the indigenous peoples who became known as American Indians is not very inspiring. We are told that they are "merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions." This official view of the Indian nations is what later justified one of the more shameful parts of our history—the use of genocide to clear the frontier for western expansion.

Bill of Rights
After defeating the British in a seven-year long war, and after a failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, the "Founding Fathers" came together to create a Constitution. Its language did not impress the farmers and workers of the day who organized—sometimes with guns in hand—to block its ratification. Eventual approval was gained only after attaching a series of amendments that became known as the Bill of Rights. If it hadn't been for the dissidents of the time we would not have the essential civil liberties that we've come to take for granted.

Manifest Destiny
Once the new federal government was in place it started flexing its muscle. Just as King George had claimed his authority from "divine appointment," the U.S. Establishment spoke of a heavenly mandated "manifest destiny" to rule from sea to shining sea. In addition to the Indian campaigns the U.S. Army found victory in the Mexican-American War, leading to the annexation of most of the present western states. There are still many residents of this region who consider Cinco de Mayo more their holiday than the Fourth of July.

Civil War and Reconstruction
But while this expansion began to transform the former colonies into a world power it also exacerbated the tensions between capitalism and slavery. You can only have one ruling class at a time in society and a bloody civil war was waged to determine which it would be.

The pro-capitalist Union had to champion emancipation of the slaves. After the war for a brief period, known as Reconstruction, civil rights were extended to male former slaves and many Blacks were elected to office in the former Confederacy.

This new democracy—made possible by federal troops—didn't last very long. The capitalists were not vengeful. They wanted to draw the former slave holders into the growing economy. In 1877 they made another compromise deal ending Reconstruction which, in effect, led to the disenfranchisement of Blacks and paved the way for nearly a century of racial segregation.

Women Sound Sour Note
On July 4, 1876 America celebrated our centennial. But some female dissidents at Independence Hall in Philadelphia were not cheering. "While the nation is buoyant with patriotism, and all hearts are attuned to praise, it is with sorrow we come to strike the one discordant note, on this one-hundredth anniversary of our country's birth." Susan B Anthony read aloud to an astonished patriotic gathering the Declaration of Rights for Women. It took another 45 years of struggle after that for women to secure the right to vote. Shortly after the Bicentenial the women's rights movement gave up on the latest of several failed attempts to get an Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution.

Out of Diversity Emerges Two
James P Cannon [1890-1974] was a worker from Kansas City who went on to become a prominent national leader in the syndaclist and socialist movements. In 1948 he delivered a speech entitled The Two Americas. He summarized the division,

"One is the America of the imperialists-of the little clique of capitalists, landlords, and militarists who are threatening and terrifying the world. This is the America the people of the world hate and fear. 

“There is the other America-the America of the workers and farmers and the 'little people'. They constitute the great majority of the people. They do the work of the country. They revere its old democratic traditions-its old record of friendship for the people of other lands, in their struggles against Kings and Despots-its generous asylum once freely granted to the oppressed.”

Since 1948 the divisions between rich and poor nations of the world have grown—and so has the fear and hatred of America described by Cannon as well. This is fertile ground for terrorism.

The division between the Two Americas has also grown. Real wages have been declining for a long time. The value of our pensions have taken a hit while Social Security is under attack. The cost of health care is outrageous. The modest gains once made by women, Blacks, and Latinos, have stopped.

From Our Heritage—Choose Our Heroes Well
We should acknowledge and take pride in the many great achievements of our nation. But no amount of flag waving, no number of compulsory prayers, should blind us to reality. If we are to realize the worthy goals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, if we are to some day become a single America with prosperity and equality for all, then we must choose our heroes well.

Not the entrepreneurs, politicians, and brass hats glorified in text books, film and song. Instead we need to follow the examples of Sam Adams, Frederick Douglass, Susan B Anthony, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, James P Cannon, A Phillip Randolph, Cesar Chavez, and the countless other leaders of our America.

There. Now I've got that out of my system. I can ignore the papers and the talking heads for the rest of the day and enjoy this special holiday. I hope you do as well.

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