By Ira Smolensky
Frederick Douglass and the 4th of July
Unlike some other old-timers, I am very much taken with the age in which I live. I dig computers (and other electronics), prefer the “horseless carriage” to its predecessors, and think free-agency has been a step forward for professional sports.
On the other hand, I definitely do not dig “hype.” And, while our generation did not invent hype (aka “hoopla,” “ballyhoo,” “promos,” and “puffery”), we are continuously bathed in it as our fellow human-beings attempt to sell us an endless array of commercial products and services as well as wannabe demagogues of various sizes, shapes, and political inclinations.
Like many other days of celebration, July 4th is marked by an abundance of hype and a dearth of honest reflection. There are parades and fireworks galore, as well as a slew of July 4th sales, all signifying next to nothing. But there is precious little in the way of inquisitive public discourse on what Independence Day really means in our country’s history and the present day.
This is really too bad because we already have a remarkable statement on the topic. In 1852, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who went on to become a distinguished writer, abolitionist, women’s liberationist, and all-round statesman, gave a “4th of July Oration” that was not only brilliant in its day, but which has also stood the test of time.
In his address, Douglass praises both the Declaration of Independence and the new nation to which it led. But he also reminds his audience that the promise of the Declaration has remained a cruel hoax to slaves. He says, in essence, that the U.S. is a great political enterprise, but that it is, nevertheless, tragically flawed.
Please note that, though he had every justification to do so, Douglass did not condemn the U.S. experiment as an abject failure. He asked only that the nation live up to its own ideals.
This approach became the dominant one for African-Americans in their quest for racial equality. Key figures such as Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr. combine love of country (or, at least, our country’s potential) with vigorous criticism of and resistance to the status quo. Indeed, the civil rights movement as a whole employed this formula from the 1940’s to the 1960’s in order to confront segregation and achieve meaningful voting rights.
I would hold that Douglass’s approach is important for a second reason as well. Douglass, in my opinion, not only addresses the particular issue of racial equality, but also the broader one of citizenship in a country such as our own. Governments being what they are (which is to say, both necessary and imperfect), they are constantly in need of legitimacy (that is, public support, which generates stability) and criticism (that is, the impulse to correct injustices, which stimulates enlightened reform).
Of course, this is no a problem in an oppressive regime, since force takes the place of legitimacy and criticism is forbidden. But this is not supposed to be the case in the U.S., where, on a daily basis, we proclaim ourselves to be in the “land of the free.” Still, we find the claim being made today, by our highest national leaders, that patriotism is incompatible with criticism in times of war. These spokespersons see national security as somehow trumping the right to criticize (or even be well-informed about) our government’s war making efforts. In short, national security—usually in the disingenuous guise of “supporting the troops”-- becomes an excuse for silencing unwelcome opinions.
As Douglass knew, however, there is much more to citizenship than marching in parades and exploding firecrackers.
He understood that expressing unpopular opinions is a sacred patriotic duty, one which is made all the more vital when lives hang in the balance.