Saturday, 4 July 2015

US Independence Day Thoughts

Happy Independence Day to my US friends.

Today’s a good time to think a moment about the main architect of the document whose signing you’re celebrating, the Declaration on Independence.

Fourth of July: a time for celebration in the US,
Perhaps also for reflection everywhere...
At a time when rising racial tensions are belying the hope raised by the Civil Rights movement and the reforms that followed, it’s worth recalling one of the principal denunciations it hurls at the British King, George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.

Don’t worry, if you know the Declaration well and don’t recognise these words, it’s not your memory letting you down. They appeared in Thomas Jefferson’s draft, but were excised from the final version. He explained later that they were removed to satisfy slave-owners in Georgia and South Carolina, and slave-traders from the Northern States.

Besides, although this passage denounces the transatlantic slave trade, it stops short of condemning slavery itself. Jefferson was a slaveholder till his death. The only slaves he ever freed were Sally Hemings, with whom he had a near forty-year affair, and the children he fathered with her.

However, he undoubtedly disliked slavery. That shouldn’t be taken as implying, though, that he was a champion of the kind of integration the US still needs so badly:

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people [African Americans] are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion have drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.

Gary Younge is an outstanding (Black) British journalist with The Guardian. He and his (Black – or perhaps I should say African) American wife and their children are about to leave the US for Britain after twelve years. In an excellent valedictory piece, he mentions the hopes for progress on racial issues many expressed over the election of Barack Obama. He didn’t believe much would improve:

…one person cannot undo centuries of discrimination, no matter how much nominal power they have… He was the most progressive candidate viable for the presidency, which says a great deal, given the alternatives, but means very little, given what would be needed to significantly shift the dial on such issues as race and inequality.

Centuries of discrimination indeed. And we can see it deeply embedded in the writings of even so liberal a figure as Thomas Jefferson.

Still, none of us is free of the assumptions of our times. Jefferson is remarkable for his ability to adopt thoughts that were revolutionary for his epoch. Some of them have become part of the fabric of societies that aspire to democracy, sometimes to the point of being so familiar we run the danger of forgetting them altogether. It’s salutary to remind ourselves of what some of them were.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence
Contradictory as we all are, but he got a lot right
as well as a few things badly wrong
For instance, in his first inaugural address, he called on his fellow citizens to bear in mind:

…that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

What of his political opponents, those in particular who might oppose the very existence of the Union or its republican basis?

…let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

A couple of years earlier, Jefferson wrote to a political ally:

I am for freedom of religion, and against all manoeuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another: for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents. And I am for encouraging the progress of science in all its branches; and not for the raising a hue and cry against he sacred name of philosophy…

Well worth reflecting on these thoughts. Especially at a time when many are calling for restrictions of liberties in the US for the sake of religious faith (such as the refusal to perform legal gay marriages), while others are resisting the progress of science (for example by denying climate change).

More important still, on both sides of the Atlantic, is the principle that the majority is not entitled to trample on the beliefs and behaviours of a minority, simply because we dislike them. We don’t like the burqa? That doesn’t give us the right to ban it.

Worst of all, we keep forgetting that it’s essential in a democracy that “error of opinion may be tolerated.” Today the talk is all of resisting radicalisation, principally among young Muslims. But the holding of radical views isn’t and should never be illegal – that’s a net that would have caught Jefferson himself. To believe that ISIS is right and deserves support may be a view so misguided as to be imbecilic, but we have no right to forbid it.

Pick up a gun for ISIS, or conspire to give it material support, or even incite others to do so, and you have broken the law and can and should expect action against you. But espouse the opinion? That must be legitimate.

Ah, well. July 4th is not a day for too much heavy thinking. I’ll stop there.

Enjoy the fireworks!

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