I am an American. Let me be clear about that.
It feels strange saying that because I have so often been made to feel a foreigner in my own country — first because of my Indian ethnicity, and then more recently because of my outspoken criticism of American foreign policy. My colleague Robert Jensen and I have both received a lot of hate mail (along with considerable approval) for our writing after 9/11, but the ones he received never questioned his Americanness.
Nonetheless, I am an American, and I take it seriously — so seriously that I’m running for elective office.
Even so, I will not be celebrating this Fourth of July.
It’s not because I don’t love this country. I do. I love living here. I love the freedom I have, the fact that I’ve spoken out openly against what the Bush administration calls the “war on terrorism” ever since 9/11 and have never been harassed by the government — though I also hate the fact that so much of what our government does is designed to deny that and similar basic freedoms to others.
It’s not because I believe that a country has to be perfect to celebrate its birthday — every nation does and none is perfect. All nation-states commit crimes, although some commit far more than others.
It’s because of what the Fourth of July has come to stand for.
In 1776, a small, relatively powerless band of American colonists took on a mighty empire that was on its way to ruling much of the world. It was a lopsided contest that the colonists won because they were fighting for their own freedom.
Even that standard account is not strictly accurate — the colonists needed the help of the French, soon to become themselves an imperial power; the colonists had spent over 100 years wiping out the Native Americans in what was to become one of the most successful genocides in world history; the leaders of the revolution were more interested in establishing an American landed aristocracy and merchant class to rule than they were in democracy. But there is a core of truth to it as well — democracy could come into being partly because of the language the Founding Fathers used, even though it didn’t accord with their overall political aims. The colonists were also the descendants of people who left England so they could live free of religious persecution and had themselves grown up with a concept of freedom that was then unequalled anywhere on the planet.
Now, however, that account is almost irrelevant. In 2002: America is the empire. It is the one in all history that has had the most control over the internal politics of the largest number of other countries.
No external enemy can attack our freedom. Only we can. The oft-repeated claims that the attacks of 9/11 were an attack on our freedom were a transparent lie, one that I have written about elsewhere (see New Crusade: the U.S. War on Terrorism ). Leaving aside, however, any question of the terrorists’ motivation, the fact is that they couldn’t attack our freedom, because no country, nor all of them put together, much less a network of a few thousand men, can dictate terms to us.
In fact, in the real world of 2002, things are the other way around. The United States leads an assault on democracy in other places in myriad ways. The recent statement by George W. Bush that the Palestinians can have democracy as long as they elect the leaders we want was just the most egregious and open one. In Afghanistan, we created an assembly to rubber-stamp our handpicked candidate for president, picked because of his past association with the CIA and with Unocal. In Venezuela, we funded a coup attempt against a popularly elected ruler. In Yugoslavia in 2000, we pumped tens of millions of dollars into influencing that country’s election. Over and above this constant assault, we have the World Bank, the IMF, and “free trade,” which have been direct instruments of U.S. policy to destroy the potential for independent economic policy in the Third World. Their use has led to a situation in which U.S. bankers and politicians have more say over most countries’ internal policies than their duly elected governments do. This is the reality of our current role in the world.
The continued celebration of the Fourth, with its constant invocation of our founding, explicitly keeps us from coming to terms with that role. In the postwar era, we could convince ourselves that we were an island of democracy embattled by a sea of communism, and since 9/11 we can convince ourselves that radical Islamic terrorism poses such a threat that we’re justified in a whole array of extreme measures to combat it, even though our resources and our power are such that international investigation and police action is likely sufficient to solve the problem — and even though most of those measures exacerbate instead of solving the problem (for a more detailed discussion, see Hearts and Minds: Avoiding a New Cold War). Both of these things are possible only because, although we have been the unquestioned superpower and we know it, we refuse to come to terms with that fact and examine seriously what it means. Simultaneously, we can continue to believe that we are a force for freedom in the world only by refusing to come to terms with our actions.
The national mythology that keeps us in this mindset requires constant reinforcement. The Fourth, in the way it is typically celebrated, is an important part of that, helping to foster the historical amnesia that is so necessary to keep a populace befuddled and vulnerable to the manipulations of those in power. In our case, it’s a historical amnesia that says very little has changed in 226 years.
An example may help to illustrate this. Israel has a similar story of its founding, a David vs. Goliath fight of Israel against all the Arab nations. This one is even more wrong in its details than our own. The most significant things about Israel’s founding was a massive ethnic cleansing campaign that resulted in the expulsion (through terrorization, massacres, refusal to allow return, and other measures) of 750,000 mostly defenseless Palestinians. But it was also true that it was a nation of Holocaust survivors, who, even after World War II, were still not given their basic due by countries like the United States, whose racist immigration laws (based on discredited eugenics theories) and initial support for Hitler did a lot to help prepare the ground for the Holocaust. Still, whatever marginal elements of truth existed in the original story, it is now irrelevant. Today, Israel is the expansionist regional power, which has attacked every one of its neighbors repeatedly, occupied other lands, oppressed the Palestinian people, and is in a position of overwhelming superiority because of its conventional military advantage and its estimated 200 nuclear missiles. Today, celebrating Israeli independence day is used in a larger sense to justify Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, just as today celebrating the Fourth of July is used to justify America’s oppression of much of the world.
I’ll say it again. I love the freedoms we have here, and will fight to keep George W. Bush and John Ashcroft from taking them away, something they are trying in a new way almost every day. But I don’t believe the pernicious mythology held in place in part by the Fourth of July that says all the wars we fought were about protecting our freedom. The Vietnamese didn’t want to invade and occupy us and neither did the Cubans. Nicaragua was not actually a “dagger pointed at the heart of the United States,” any more than Czechoslovakia was a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany. Nor would anybody else if we weren’t constantly drowned in a sea of absurd commentary and mindless flag-waving.
The question of how a movement for social justice deals with symbols like the Fourth of July or like the flag has always been a controversial one. At the height of the Vietnam War, when some were advocating burning the flag, others said we should wash it instead, try to reclaim the symbol instead of repudiate it.
I’m no flag-burner (although, of course, I support freedom of expression). I don’t see the point in an act that simply shocks the sensibilities of people. I’d like to be able to celebrate the Fourth. But right now the flag needs a lot of washing, and reclaiming the Fourth of July as a celebration that plays any positive role will take a lot of work.
Rahul Mahajan is the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas. He is a member of the Nowar Collectiveand serves on the National Board of Peace Action. His book, The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,has been described as “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism.” His other work can be seen at http://www.rahulmahajan.com He can be reached at [email protected]