Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

Today, the 4th of July, reminds us of our independence but not of its universality or equity. Frederick Douglass famously called attention to America’s hypocrisy in his 4th of July speech in 1852. Recently, his descendants read portions of his speech, which you can see here:

As Davout says in his powerful article, Douglass called for a better America, one that would move beyond empty patriotic gestures. It’s a message that’s even more urgently needed today.

Bracing Views

taking a knee Colin Kaepernick (#7) takes a knee

M. Davout

A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem.  Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.

800px-Frederick_Douglass_by_Samuel_J_Miller,_1847-52 Frederick Douglass near the time of the Rochester Speech, given on the 5th of July 1852

At the time of his Fourth of July Address…

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13 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

  1. Frederick Douglass’s use of language is always breath taking. Not many people used or use the language so well. I would say he was “articulate” (which of course he was) but someone might think I am being patronizing. However, I want to make a wider point about those “essential” workers and “unskilled” workers, including slaves.
    We, in general, have some vague idea that these categories of people are ignorant, in-articulate lumps. So let me take you back 2,000 years, to a slave named Tiro. He was owned by Marcus Tullius Cicero (usually just known as Cicero) who later freed him. Tiro is considered the father of shorthand. Every time you use an ampersand, for example, you are using a shorthand. (actually Tiro’s was more like a “7” and you can see it in Spanish as a “y” rather than the much later “&” which stood for “et” [“and” in Latin]). He had about 4,000 symbols for words and phrases. Look up Tironian notes.
    Tiro is the reason we know so much about Cicero. Tiro was Cicero’s secretary, traveled with him, and took notes on all his business in the senate and elsewhere. He wrote Cicero’s accounts which we read today.
    Tiro was just one of many slaves “employed” in highly skilled and educated occupations. So, very “articulate.” Something of the same of “unskilled labor.” They are very skilled in working with people and/or in all sorts of conditions, in order to accomplished their “unskilled” jobs. Today, they are being called “essential” workers but I’m sure that will be forgotten as soon as the rich don’t need them to be essential.
    We write our histories about the ruling class and “erase” the lower classes into a sort of formless mass. But that mass had lives lived in the real world.
    Even though there were rules against teaching slaves (in the old south, not Rome), slaves were educated to perform their jobs. It is easy to forget that these mostly nameless masses of people had lives rich in detail, if not freedom. Smart people, denied the fruits of their labors and also denied the acknowledgement of who they were and of how capable they were. Erased, in a sense.
    And then, we have Frederick Douglass who seems an anomaly. He was certainly special in many ways and was always conscious of his image as a black man, but he was only one of many smart, learned people held as property.

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  2. In my youth, there was an expression that went: “The empty trash can makes the most noise.” The office of POTUS has never been occupied by an emptier trash can than Donald Trump. On July 3, his very presence at Mt. Rushmore soiled the memory of those good things accomplished by the presidents ensconced in stone there. Of the four, we have long been aware that two were slave owners in the earliest years of this republic. (NEVER a “democracy,” please bear in mind.) When the document issued 4 July 1776 spoke of inalienable rights, it did not have a large portion of the population in mind, not even white women in terms of property and voting rights. But the Founders did present ideas that were pretty revolutionary for their time. Last night, Trump issued a thinly veiled call for an escalation of violence to be directed at the Black Lives Matter movement (which is NOT a centralized, unified entity, of course). He tried to paint a picture of “a left-wing fascist [!] movement” that tolerates no internal dissent. We know he recently declared the very phrase “black lives matter” to be “hate speech”! Talk about, pardon the expression, “The pot calling the kettle black”!! It is easy to predict, and I do, increasing physical assaults on those trying to force the nation to live up to its supposed lofty ideals. Last night someone drove a motor vehicle into a crowd of protesters in Seattle. Not the first such incident since the murder of George Floyd, but possibly the first directly inspired by Trump’s venomous language. GOP insiders are reportedly very concerned about the upcoming elections (assuming they’re allowed to take place!), so Trump is more and more acting the wounded, cornered animal. His mission now is to do the absolute maximum harm to this society he can, while he still can. Incidentally, CNN reports that the chief sculptor on the Mt. Rushmore project was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and later involved with the Stone Mountain, Georgia gigantic monument to the leaders of the Confederate States of America (a.k.a. the traitors to the USA). Even I, hardcore leftist, was not aware of that fascinating historical tidbit. But the pieces of the puzzle come together and we can see the bigger picture.


    1. One certainly could say that “the empty trash can makes the most noise” but, then, if one does not apply that aphorism to the likes of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow luridly screaming about “Russians paying for the scalps of US soldiers in Afghanistan” (or the 2016 Democratic Party presidential candidate calling Donald Trump “Putin’s Puppet” during their debates) then I would question the slogan’s usefulness.

      On the other hand, a trash can overflowing with rotting garbage may not ring hollow but it certainly smells the worst. And this entire four-year-long red-baiting jihad against Donald Trump (both as a political candidate and elected President) reeks “like the Volga River at low tide,” to quote Vladimir Dracula in the film Love At First Bite. Trying to defeat a hollow noise with an overpowering stench certainly didn’t work out too well for the right-wing Democrats in their lust to displace the right-wing Republicans at the nation’s pig-sty feeding trough in 2016.

      As British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said to Queen Victoria following his political defeat by arch-nemesis William Gladstone: “No government can survive three bad harvests in a row.” The Corona-virus and collapsing economy have probably doomed Donald Trump’s bid for re-election, or would do so in “normal” times. But the Democratic Party and shrieking, harpy media (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc.) have so discredited themselves with their credulous red-baiting hysteria, that even the empty Donald Trump might look preferable to his putrid-smelling “opposition.” As an example of the fermenting pile of dog excrement regularly thrown at President Trump by media venues catering to “the resistance” — i.e., those who cannot abide the thought of the military’s titular Commander in Chief ordering US soldiers out of the Afghanistan shooting gallery — consider:

      Trump’s a traitor: The bounty should be on his head (metaphorically speaking). Is the Russian bounty scandal the final nail in Donald Trump’s (political) coffin? It certainly should be., by Lucian K. Truscott IV, (July 4, 2020). Frederick Douglass, the self-educated former slave, would have a field day correcting the ludicrous abuse of language in just the first paragraph of this libellous screed.

      The first story of the rest of Donald Trump’s life was published last Friday in the New York Times, revealing that the Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU has been paying bonuses to Taliban fighters to kill Americans, and that this intelligence had been reported to Trump and had been known at least since March. The story was subsequently confirmed by the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the AP.

      In the first place, no one has “reported” on anything, if “reporting” any longer means publishing factual information of genuine public interest, like Wikileaks consistently does. Nor did anyone “reveal” anything, since one cannot reveal what never existed. Nor does the word “intelligence” apply to any propaganda product of the CIA, NSA, or Pentagram. Nor can one assert that anyone “has known” something that no one could possibly have “reported” because nothing ever existed to report. Lastly, no stenographic propaganda mouthpiece “subsequently confirmed” anything since uncritically repeating a falsehood does not constitute “confirmation” of it.

      As with 2016, the Democratic Party establishment has chosen to run their [reputed] candidate [someone not named “Trump”] to the right of a right-wing Republican who continues to label these salivating war-agitators “far left.” What a joke: sort of like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan each accusing the other of “insufficiently enthusiastic savagery.”

      So I guess this November in America comes down to a “contest” between Donald Trump who makes loud noises while accomplishing little versus a cognitively challenged “someone else” who has others making his noises for him while they collectively defecate all over the United States and world for the further enrichment of a few hundred billionaire oligarchs — just what any Republican would and will do if elected President and self-styled “Emperor.”

      Donald Trump does not deserve the title of “worst” US President. Just the “latest” one to date.


    2. It’s truly amazing that Trump can claim with a straight face that Democrats and Joe Biden represent a radical left takeover of America. You know, a bunch of hippy/commie America haters who want to take away all your guns and rights while converting your kids to god-denying flag-burners.

      Can this tired rhetoric — it was tired in the 1960s — actually work?

      I can’t see how it will — but it’s still more than possible the Dems and Biden will find a way to implode before election day. Even as the American death toll rises toward 200K because of Covid-19.

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      1. Watching the corporate-toady Democrats doing their best red-baiting imitations of Tricky Dick Nixon and Tailgunner Joe McCarthy — Republicans who, after all, invented red-baiting — reminds me of a scene in the film Love at First Bite where the psychiatrist Jeffrey Rosenberg tries to impress his model-girlfriend, Cindy Sondheim, by hypnotizing Count Dracula in front of her over dinner at some restaurant. Sneered the Count in response to the jumped-up little show-off : “Do not try and teach your grandmother how to suck eggs, Rosenberg.” Democrats trying to school Republicans in the political uses of scurrilous “Cold War” slander just seems so hilariously funny to me, and especially ironic on the Fourth of July with the national bird — not the middle finger, but the Eagle — trying so hard to fly straight while flailing away mightily with its two broken right wings.


      2. The more I ponder Trump’s Mt. Rushmore campaign rally–that’s what it was, fireworks be damned–the more I think his speech could’ve been penned by “Doctor” Goebbels. Except THOSE Nazis, the originals if you will, would not have applied the term “fascist” to their opponents. Fascism was their own ideal, and I’ll declare right here and now I sincerely consider Trump to be a Fascist. And I believe he is pretty openly calling for launching of the “race war” hankered for by the “Turner Diaries” crowd. As for Biden’s chances, with each passing day there will be more hoopla about who his running mate will be. Come on, Joe, you can only stretch suspense just so far before folks lose interest!


        1. The Corporate Democrats — and Fascism means Corporatism, according to Benito Mussolini (who had some familiarity with the subject) — have created something of a conundrum for themselves. On the one hand, they do not dare to let Joe Biden out in public for fear that he will start trying to speak extemporaneously. But on the other hand, if they do not get his name sufficiently established in the electoral consciousness, the public will not know for whom to mark their ballots other than Donald Trump. But someone issuing a tweet under Biden’s name embracing the Democrats’ new hero John Bolton (if not Liz Cheney) pushes shameless expediency right up to the vomit margin, as illustrated in a recent Jimmy Dore show. See: Trump Mistakenly Retweets Max Blumenthal & Hillarity Ensues (June 22, 2020).
          . . .
          [14:23] Jimmy Dore reads the tweet from Joe Biden’s Twitter account:

          If John Bolton’s accounts are true, it is not only morally repugnant, it’s a violation of Donald Trump’s sacred duty to the American people to protect America’s interests and defend our values.” — Joe Biden

          Jimmy Dore: “God damn. Mother f-er. God Damn. They just can’t fucking help themselves with their bullshit. They just won’t … ‘Sacred Duty.’ ‘Truth has to mean…’ ‘Defend our values.’ Joe Biden has about as much values as John Gotti [the head of the Gambino crime family]. I bet you Gotti has more values, actually, than Joe Biden. What kind of values does a guy like Joe Biden [have] who bombed Libya and turned it into a failed state [with open slave markets]; then kept going into Syria; kicked people out of their house during a recession; did the Crime Bill; made it harder for poor people to get rid of their debt when they were sick and in bankruptcy. The guy’s worse than John Gotti. He certainly murdered more people.” . . .

          [15:19] Max Blumenthal: “You know, to Biden’s credit, he didn’t tweet that. He doesn’t know what Twitter is. He probably doesn’t have the ability to type. But I think that that tweet might have had more credibility [if], when asked about his son’s involvement with Burisma, [he hadn’t] said: “My son did absolutely nothing wrong.” I mean, it’s one thing to say, ‘OK. I didn’t fire the [Ukrainian] prosecutor to protect my son. There’s no evidence there.” But he said “My son did nothing wrong” when he was taking eighty thousand dollars a month from some oligarch and had no experience in the oil industry at all, and it was completely so this oligarch could get in with Biden and the Obama administration and polish his reputation in Washington after being this completely corrupt official. But to Biden, that’s doing nothing wrong. So he really has nothing to say here and no one takes him seriously” [emphasis added].

          [16:21] “And no one is going to vote for him. Not one person is going to vote for Joe Biden. People are going to vote against Donald Trump because all of those Boomers who feel like they’re about to get Covid if they leave their bedroom would vote for Herbert Hoover’s burial shroud over Donald Trump. That’s the election. Joe Biden doesn’t even matter. It’s like the greatest gift to Joe Biden. Just stay in your little PO Box in Delaware, or wherever you are, and just sit there. Don’t say anything. And you’ll win. Maybe. Or maybe not.”

          I don’t know what any of this has to do with Frederic Douglass and his exemplary use of the English Language, but if he lived today he would probably have a hard time distinguishing Trump from Biden given the third-world poverty levels both of these men have done their utmost to inflict upon over half the US population, as did every previous US President since Ronald Reagan. He would probably recognize them (including Barack Obama) as little more than hired plantation overseers and would forthrightly describe them as such.


          1. Hi Mike: I saw that segment. Thanks for transcribing it. Jimmy and Max nail it. Trump is running on nothing but hate and “heroes”; Biden is running on nothing but that he’s not Trump. What a choice in Amerika!


          2. Remember, in the before time, when Biden appeared both clueless and out of the race? (Now he’s simply clueless.) When Bernie Sanders was riding high, and even Tulsi Gabbard was making waves? Cue the DNC and Obama to force Amy K and Mayor Pete out; cue the destruction of Bernie, sadly with his own help, as the DNC coalesced around a second fiddle with hard miles and a couple of broken strings.

            As Jimmy Dore points out, the Covid crisis was tailor made for Bernie and his call for Medicare for All. How quickly Bernie was silenced; how willingly he fit his own muzzle. How rapidly we lost a chance for real change.

            Douglass talks about hypocrisy in this speech. Hypocrisy: I give you Obama and the DNC. They conspired to choose Biden for us, even as they said it was up to you the voters. Right.


  3. From the Moon of Alabama blog for July 6, 2020:


    Secretary Pompeo @SecPompeo – 12:16 UTC · Jul 5, 2019

    Today, #Venezuela’s Independence Day, we are reminded of the country’s prosperous past – and the future the Venezuelan people deserve. The U.S. stands with @jguaido, @AsambleaVE, and all Venezuelans yearning for a return to democracy and a brighter future. #EstamosUnidosVE

    Joe Biden @JoeBiden – 21:10 UTC · Jul 5, 2020

    On this Venezuelan Independence Day, my thoughts are with Venezuelans who continue to work tirelessly for the cause of democracy. It’s time for free and fair elections so that the Venezuelan people can turn the page on the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime.

    So now we have the stomach-turning spectacle of Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden teaming up with Jabba the Hutt Pompeo and Liz “Daughter of 5-Deferment Dick” Cheney to (1) thwart any attempt by President Trump to withdraw US troops from their mindless deployments abroad and (2) prevent any resetting of relations between the US and the lawfully elected President Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela. The Swamp has not only swallowed everyone in the US government, but has become the US government. Still, the browbeaten Boobies of the US marketing territory still have a “choice” before them in November: Alligators or poisonous reptiles.

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    1. I was not aware of such an incident in Rochester. Some will call this “backlash” against ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but I deem it just continuation (“forelash”) of the legacy of racist oppression. This is exactly the kind of tense atmosphere desired by those most extreme elements who wish for the white “majority” to rise up and massacre minorities. If you think I exaggerate, or am getting hysterical, I counter with this: You fail to grasp the real depth of the danger to this society. In essence, we have a United States President egging on the Ku Klux Klan from the bully pulpit of the White House.


  4. We are not in a good place right now. But the way things are going, change is happening faster than ever. So I am optimistic to a small degree. The Chaos can work in a surprising way.


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