The US celebrated the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence last week amid warnings of coronavirus contamination in mass gatherings. Discarding alarms raised on health hazards, a huge assembly of loyal supporters stuck to their guns and cheerfully lauded the presidential discourse. Presumably, in the wake of mass protests against racial discrimination triggered by police violence, which somewhat showcased the US in a negative spotlight, the public wanted to hear something different. So, the President briefly recalled the foundation of the huge country and its positive contribution to the world with emphasis on its generosity.
Declaration of Independence celebrations in Washington. Photo – static.independent.co.uk
In the oldest democracy of the world where free speech ranks high in the long list of freedoms granted to citizens, apparently no academic or media spokesperson deemed it necessary to observe that among one thousand deaths a year by police action, only 26 to 31% of the victims are African-Americans according to figures published in the media. What about the 70% or so? Among American whites and Hispanics, probably. Are they perceived as racially-motivated? As things stand these days, with both academics and media portraying every confrontation and clash as minority woes, promoting a skewed vision of victim/oppressor relation based on ethnicity, religion or colour, it comes as no surprise. Such partial reporting on sensitive issues hides the complexity of factors underlying economic and cultural aspects of society, and how the mainstream majoritarian section of society see themselves as a nation in its historical development and the values they cherish.
In an era of non-stop news, events, well-grounded or impulsive ill-informed opinions, and above all, quick emotional reactions splashed on ‘social’ media by all and sundry, historical reality and a multi-faceted portrait of a country are often ignored. As regards its history and rise as a superpower, a deeper insight into what the US has been and still represents is of prime relevance notwithstanding the beheading of Columbus and other key figures. On Independence Day, presidential discourses encapsulate the state and mood of the country and give an overview of its trajectory and present significance on the world stage. Quite an impressive country from all angles whatever be the yardsticks used to evaluate its importance and worth on the one hand, and without underestimating its flaws in diplomacy and far-reaching consequences in international conflicts on the other hand.
‘Birth of a Nation’ is the first American film in the early beginning of cinema production, a patriotic view of its foundations and guiding ethics. A date which might perhaps offend Native Americans. Indeed, the Founding Fathers namely, John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others laid down the principles and lofty ideals of the Constitution right after declaring independence from England on July 4th 1776. An experimentation with democracy elaborated by an authoritarian and conservative set of Puritan representatives, but which nevertheless foreshadowed an unwavering belief in freedom and individual human rights irrespective of race, birth, gender and religion embodied in the Constitution. The oldest democracy is imbibed with a profound religious spirit of its ‘manifest destiny’ in making the new country a model for the world.
Like a City upon a Hill
Musical Comedy and film ‘The Mayflower’ depicts the tempestuous journey of the second batch of settlers who set sail from the shores of Holland after departing from England. The quest for freedom encompasses religion (Puritanism rejected in England), agricultural economy and political distancing from king rule. A string of biblical connotations runs through all the discourses of the first Pilgrim Fathers. It was a voyage to the Promised Land, full of milk and honey, a liberation from persecution, and a freedom of enterprise and hope of self-rule. A dream of prosperity and success which one of the most prominent Pilgrim Fathers, John Winthrop described in prophetic terms: We shall be like a city upon a hill. One day all the world will look at us.
A city upon a hill is reminiscent of the sermon on the hill in the Old Testament and the foundation of Jerusalem.
If anything, a 1620 prophecy that came to full realization in the course of the 20th century. President Trump’s mention of US generosity is reminiscent of the sense of duty of its leaders as they opened its gate to other migrants fleeing poverty in England and Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries in the first stages of nation-building, and to Germans, Greeks, Italians and other Eastern Europeans who consolidated its economic pillars in the 19th century. Then came Asians, mainly Chinese, to build its railway infrastructure, and in times of prosperity Egyptians, Iranians, Middle-Easterners, Africans and other Asians were accepted as immigrants for several reasons, as they were fleeing tyranny, wars, dictatorship, bleak economic conditions in native lands. America was the promised land of opportunities, land of plenty where anyone could make it to the top, from rags to riches, whatever be the circumstances they were born with. It was indeed the shining city, a beacon of hope other citizens of the world looked up to.
End of 20th century and exploding world demography made it difficult for the US to keep its gates wide open to all indiscriminately. Its model as a free society, a strong democracy coupled with dynamic economic growth kept drawing thousands of people to its shores. This is the basic relation of foreigners with the US. In recent decades, inadequate investment in education in the US has led the administration to welcome high-tech specialists in key sectors from other countries where they are educated at the expense of local public funds. Scholarships, grants of all sorts to foreign students in American universities, huge sums to the budget of world organizations and NATO to ensure Europe’s security have remained on the agenda for years despite a review of US funding lately.
Whatever be the flaws, lack of adequate national healthcare and equal education system, lack of wisdom in the conduct of a few cases in international affairs, the US remains a key world power to reckon with. With a high-profile businessman as President, it inevitably reviews the sacred policy of non-intervention of federal government in economic affairs dating back to Jefferson because the President seriously means business. Whether it is labelled as Satan by anti-western rhetoric, big bully by all and sundry, it is a country which still lives up to its principles; it has a system of checks and balances to address wrongdoings and ensure fairness in its internal affairs. It has the power and backbone to address unfair international trade practices and take on rogue countries while spineless EU leaders complain and whine about without taking action.
The point is there are several narratives in what makes up the distinctive features of a country and of all countries for that matter. Multiple narratives matter because of the complexity of everything, and the yardsticks used to measure this and that randomly. It is worth taking into consideration in an era of widespread ignorance, sheep mindset, grotesque mimicry, media predators and Inquisition style mob violence.
The onus is also on prosperous countries and rising big nations to head towards a multi-polar balance of power and include other stakeholders to operate a change in the equation that has prevailed up to now. The predominant male characteristic of the jungle law and vision of a single power, be it a new one, crushing others under its paws is no longer sustainable for world peace. The US ‘manifest destiny’ can unfold in a myriad of ways in upholding key values and lofty principles with right partners in the turbulent phase of warring Dataism in the course of this century.