Here are a few random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.
1. I’m still reeling from Donald Trump confessing how he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love.” Imagine if Barack Obama had gushed about falling in love with a communist dictator? Fox News and the Republicans would have crucified him.
2. Brett Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court justice. But imagine if he’d been black. Would he have survived sexual assault allegations from three white women? Or imagine if he’d been a woman and boasted of liking beer, lots of beer, while losing self-control before the Senate judiciary committee. A female Kavanaugh would have been dismissed as hysterical and unsuited for the pressures of the court, methinks. In sum, a certain type of privilege still exists for certain types of white males.
3. Last night, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of colluding with the Russians. Trump’s tactics on this issue have run the gamut from denying he colluded, to saying it’s not illegal to collude, to charging his opponent with the (apparent) crime of colluding. This is not to say I believe Trump colluded with the Russians (though his constant denials make me think he’s got a lot to hide). While we wait for the Mueller investigation to conclude, it’s worth recalling that candidate Trump asked the Russians to hack Hillary’s server to find her missing emails. Perhaps this was merely a snide remark by an unhinged candidate, but why were Trump campaign staffers meeting with Russians? To help speed adoption of Russian kids by Americans?
But here’s a key point: Trump didn’t win because of Russian “collusion.” He won because Hillary ran a poor campaign. The collusion story (assuming there’s something to it) is a minor issue compared to the real damage Trump does every day as president, e.g. dismissing the perils of climate change as a “Chinese hoax.”
4. At TomDispatch.com, Juan Cole has a fine piece on Islamophobia and how it’s promoted by the Trump administration. It has at least three components. The first is resentment stemming from 9/11, which embarrassed the Republicans since it happened on their watch. The second is religion, that old crusading spirit of evangelicals and conservative Catholics. The third is entitlement/resentment. You know the saying: Who put America’s oil under the desert sands of the Middle East? America’s leaders, and so many of their countrymen, believe all that oil should be theirs.
5. There’s an argument that Trump is no worse than other politicians like Obama or the Clintons. Indeed, that in some way his mendacity is refreshing: that he’s torn the mask off American exceptionalism, revealing all the hypocrisy, all the duplicity, all the crimes against humanity, that other politicians work to keep hidden.
It’s tempting to say “they all do it.” But Trump’s dishonesty is constant. He lies just to stay in shape. And his lies are calculated to sow discord — to divide. Divide and rule is his strategy. Reaping profit for himself is his goal. He’s always been a con man, but now the entire country, indeed the entire world, is his mark.
Because he’s anti-democratic, because he’s a divider, because he loves dictators while mocking people weaker than him, for these and many other reasons, Trump is worse. Trump is making cruelty normal, even admirable (at least to his followers). He’s not so much ripping a mask off America as he is reveling in his own nastiness while encouraging likeminded people in America and around the world to join him.
News of the death of Senator John McCain from cancer has generated enormous sympathy and praise. When he ran for president in 2008, McCain was known as a “maverick” in the media, even though his views were rarely that far removed from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Maybe it was his style that won him that nickname. A former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, McCain was less guarded than most politicians, and he courted the media with candor and humor (what a contrast to Donald Trump, who denounces the media as “the enemy of the people”).
Rolling the dice in the 2008 campaign, McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, a folksy governor from Alaska with virtually no experience in national or international politics. But what Palin had was strong populist instincts and a certain plain-speaking charisma. If McCain was the “maverick,” Palin was the “rogue” candidate. She helped to unleash a populist (anti-intellectual) fervor in the Republican party that culminated with Donald Trump.
I well remember the 2008 election. I was living in rural Pennsylvania and both vice-presidential candidates came for a visit. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, filled a high school gymnasium — roughly 600 people. Sarah Palin filled a minor league baseball stadium to overflowing — roughly 13,000 people.
Back then, Rebecca Traister wrote about Palin’s triumphal tour of rural Pennsylvania here. She also wrote about Palin’s rally at that minor league baseball stadium, Bowman Field. For some reason, the link to that article (which appeared originally at Salon.com) no longer works, but another blogger (“Lowell”) at Contextual Criticism cited portions of it back in early November 2008. Here’s how that blogger, quoting Traister, set the scene:
Palin is in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It is a cold Thursday night. Thirteen thousand faithful, with “their Christian literature and thundersticks in tow,” have come to an outdoor baseball stadium to see the hockey mom from Alaska, the moose-slayer, the pit bull who ignites their basest instincts.
“Finally, about an hour before Palin’s scheduled arrival, Bowman Field kicked off its pre-party with the National Anthem sung under the giant flag suspended from a crane over the ‘Victory in Pennsylvania’ sign. A security sniper ogled the chilly crowd with his night-vision glasses, and a local minister took the stage to offer a benediction that hit the trifecta of guns, gays and abortion. The preacher asked forgiveness ‘for so many [who] have shed innocent blood through the course of abortions, and so many [who] would stop the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.’ With these abominations in mind, the preacher continued, ‘Thank you for raising up a woman like Gov. Sarah Palin at a time like this. Bless her for standing against those who would remove the guns from our cabinets, and those who would want to remove the baby from the womb of her mother. Bless her family as they adjust to changes in their lives that are going to be taking place on Tuesday.'”
Ms. Traister writes that “Palin was her down-home bestest, peppering her brief address with references to First Dude’s four snow-machine world championships, a lot of gratitude toward the veterans in the crowd, and a lot of folksy, g-droppin’ references to how ‘the time for choosin’s comin’ real soon,’ a golden-oldie reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater. Combined with Palin’s repeated use of the phrases ‘You betcha!’ and ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ and her guess that the crowd was ‘so doggone proud’ of the Phillies, and her environmental justification that ‘God has so richly blessed this land with resources’ that [we] should probably strip-mine it, Palin seemed to be imitating Tina Fey’s imitation of her on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Toward the end, Palin invoked Reagan again, saying “In the end, what John McCain and I believe in is what Ronald Reagan believes in … we believe that America is still that shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan used to speak of.”
Now, lest you think Ms. Traister got out of that God-lovin’ bunch of folks without incident, think again. Here’s how she tells it:
“While I was interviewing some of the attendees, accompanied by another Salon staffer who was holding a video camera, a Palin fan in a newish silver sedan drove by and hit me hard in the back with the side mirror of the car, hard enough to bend the mirror back. Then the car drove off without anybody inside pausing to ask if I was all right. The middle-aged woman in the passenger seat, however, might have saluted me with an un-Christian hand gesture.”
Yes — that happened. Traister, a journalist, was hit “hard in the back” by a car, earning a middle-finger salute for her pains from one of the passengers. Talk about being anti-media! Small wonder that Trump’s diatribes resonate so well with “God-lovin'” people across the USA.
After the rallies in 2008, I asked my students (I was teaching college at the time) about them. They gushed about Palin. One of my students was especially taken by Palin’s husband, whom she considered to be a stud. None of my students had anything to say about the (much smaller and comparatively sedate) Biden rally.
Then and now, the mainstream media and the Democratic Party dismissed Palin as a joke, just as they initially dismissed Trump as a joke in 2015. Yet, as I wrote about Palin in 2010:
Much of what’s been said about Palin was also said of another backwoods American whose values were honed on the frontier: President Andrew Jackson. Palin may be no Jackson, but the liberal media’s sneering dismissal of her constitutes an indulgent, often self-congratulatory, narrative. It’s also a repudiation of our Jacksonian heritage of tough-minded, plain-speaking independence.
Like Jackson, Palin makes no pretense about being a cultivated American. Like it or not, she’s seen by her admirers as genuine precisely because she’s not a conflicted intellectual — precisely because she doesn’t confuse her followers by revealing a fourth side to every three-sided problem. Gosh darn it, she just loves God and loves America and loves our troops and loves her special baby and … well … that’s more than enough for her many admirers and followers.
Rural people in “fly-over” country are naturally suspicious of slick politicians who are both too smarmy and too clever for their own good. Palin is naturally “aw shucks” and seemingly content with her knowledge of the world. And, like Andrew Jackson before her, Palin is unapologetic, undeferential, and unabashedly proud to be an American. One simply can’t imagine her making a “patronizing apology tour” of European capitals, as President Obama was accused of doing by conservatives.
And which past president does Trump believe he’s most like? Andrew Jackson. Trump is, in a way, a male Palin with a lot more celebrity, lots more money, and scads of mendacity.
By selecting Palin as his running mate in 2008, McCain helped to open a door for future populists, a door Trump jumped through in 2015. It may not be McCain’s defining legacy, but it is, perhaps, his most negative.
Reference: See David Smith, “John McCain opened Pandora’s box – Sarah Palin came out, but Trump was right behind her. The senator regretted his choice of running mate. In 2008, no one could have imagined what it would mean,” at The Guardian, which got me thinking about this issue.
America’s MAGA President, Donald Trump, has generated enormous criticism for his news conference with Vladimir Putin. Typical of this is James Fallows at The Atlantic, who wrote that “Never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.” A “national nightmare,” opined The Washington Post. A “train wreck,” said NBC News, that made Russians “gleeful.”
Is Trump advancing the interests of Russia? Is this an example of high crimes and misdemeanors, perhaps even rising to treason?
Methinks not. Trump, if he is advancing Russian interests, is doing so indirectly. Because only one thing matters to Trump: his own interests. With Trump, it really is all about him.
Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump is never going to side with his intelligence agencies on this issue. He thinks that, by doing so, he’d be admitting that maybe he didn’t win fair and square over “Crooked Hillary.” He refuses to countenance Russian meddling, not because he’s a Putin stooge, but rather because he’s an egomaniac. He’ll admit to nothing that diminishes, however slightly, his victory — and his ego.
Russia doesn’t matter to Trump. Indeed, America doesn’t matter to Trump. With Trump, it’s really all about him. Recall how he visited the CIA and boasted about himself while standing before the wall that commemorates fallen CIA officers. Recall how he declared the military would follow his orders regardless of their legality. He rashly accuses Democrats of not caring about the troops or border security whenever they oppose his policies. He does best with foreign leaders, like the Saudis and Israelis, who are at pains to flatter him. He apparently can’t stand Angela Merkel because she doesn’t play the flattery game.
Trump lives in his own reality, a narcissistic swirl of fabrications, falsehoods, and lies. He’s happiest when he’s commanding the scene, when people are kowtowing to him, when he can boast about himself and advertise his businesses (during this latest trip, he went to a Trump golf course in Scotland and waxed about its “magical” qualities).
In short, Trump is not treasonous. He simply has no concept of public service. He has no capacity to serve any cause other than himself.
Readers, what do you think of the treason accusations against Trump?
[This essay is the introduction to Tom Engelhardt’s new book, A Nation Unmade by War, a Dispatch Book published by Haymarket Books.]
(Since 2007, I’ve had the distinct honor of writing for Tom Engelhardt and TomDispatch.com. Tom is a patriot in the best sense of that word: he loves his country, and by that I mean the ideals and freedoms we cherish as Americans. But his love is not blind; rather, his eyes are wide open, his mind is sharp, and his will is unflagging. He calls America to account; he warns us, as Dwight D. Eisenhower did, about the many dangers of an all-powerful national security state; and, as Ike did sixty years ago, he reminds us that only Americans can truly hurt America. I think Ike would have commended his latest book, “A Nation Unmade by War.” Having read it myself, I highly recommend it to thinking patriots everywhere.W.J. Astore.)
Tom Engelhardt, A Staggeringly Well-Funded Blowback Machine
As I was putting the finishing touches on my new book, the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute published an estimate of the taxpayer dollars that will have gone into America’s war on terror from September 12, 2001, through fiscal year 2018. That figure: a cool $5.6 trillion (including the future costs of caring for our war vets). On average, that’s at least $23,386 per taxpayer.
Keep in mind that such figures, however eye-popping, are only the dollar costs of our wars. They don’t, for instance, include the psychic costs to the Americans mangled in one way or another in those never-ending conflicts. They don’t include the costs to this country’s infrastructure, which has been crumbling while taxpayer dollars flow copiously and in a remarkably — in these years, almost uniquely — bipartisan fashion into what’s still laughably called “national security.” That’s not, of course, what would make most of us more secure, but what would make them — the denizens of the national security state — ever more secure in Washington and elsewhere. We’re talking about the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. nuclear complex, and the rest of that state-within-a-state, including its many intelligence agencies and the warrior corporations that have, by now, been fused into that vast and vastly profitable interlocking structure.
In reality, the costs of America’s wars, still spreading in the Trump era, are incalculable. Just look at photos of the cities of Ramadi or Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa or Aleppo in Syria,Sirte in Libya, or Marawiin the southern Philippines, all in ruins in the wake of the conflicts Washington set off in the post–9/11 years, and try to put a price on them. Those views of mile upon mile of rubble, often without a building still standing untouched, should take anyone’s breath away. Some of those cities may never be fully rebuilt.
And how could you even begin to put a dollars-and-cents value on the larger human costs of those wars: the hundreds of thousands of dead? The tens of millions of people displaced in their own countries or sent as refugees fleeing across any border in sight? How could you factor in the way those masses of uprooted peoples of the Greater Middle East and Africa are unsettlingother parts of the planet? Their presence (or more accurately a growing fear of it) has, for instance, helped fuel an expanding set of right-wing “populist” movements that threaten to tear Europe apart. And who could forget the role that those refugees — or at least fantasy versions of them — played in Donald Trump’s full-throated, successful pitch for the presidency? What, in the end, might be the cost of that?
Opening the Gates of Hell
America’s never-ending twenty-first-century conflicts were triggered by the decision of George W. Bush and his top officials to instantly define their response to attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by a tiny group of jihadis as a “war”; then to proclaim it nothing short of a “Global War on Terror”; and finally to invade and occupy first Afghanistan and then Iraq, with dreams of dominating the Greater Middle East — and ultimately the planet — as no other imperial power had ever done.
Their overwrought geopolitical fantasies and their sense that the U.S. military was a force capable of accomplishing anything they willed it to do launched a process that would cost this world of ours in ways that no one will ever be able to calculate. Who, for instance, could begin to put a price on the futures of the children whose lives, in the aftermath of those decisions, would be twisted and shrunk in ways frightening even to imagine? Who could tote up what it means for so many millions of this planet’s young to be deprived of homes, parents, educations — of anything, in fact, approximating the sort of stability that might lead to a future worth imagining?
Though few may remember it, I’ve never forgotten the 2002 warning issued by Amr Moussa, then head of the Arab League. An invasion of Iraq would, he predicted that September, “open the gates of hell.” Two years later, in the wake of the actual invasion and the U.S. occupation of that country, he altered his comment slightly. “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”
His assessment has proven unbearably prescient — and one not only applicable to Iraq. Fourteen years after that invasion, we should all now be in some kind of mourning for a world that won’t ever be. It wasn’t just the US military that, in the spring of 2003, passed through those gates to hell. In our own way, we all did. Otherwise, Donald Trump wouldn’t have become president.
I don’t claim to be an expert on hell. I have no idea exactly what circle of it we’re now in, but I do know one thing: we are there…
Read the rest of Tom’s article here at TomDispatch.com.
Who are we supposed to hate today? The Russians for allegedly throwing the presidential election? The Chinese for allegedly stealing our jobs? The North Koreans for allegedly planning our nuclear destruction? The Iranians for allegedly working to acquire nuclear weapons? The “axis of evil” for being, well, evil?
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that the only thing they had to fear is fear itself. However, recent American presidents have encouraged us to fear everything. Let’s not forget the stoking of fear by people like Condoleezza Rice and her image of a smoking gun morphing into a nuclear mushroom cloud. That image helped to propel America into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that festers still.
One of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any movie came in the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The film version begins with the “two minutes of hate” directed against various (imagined) enemies. Check it out. Doubleplusgood!
Especially disturbing is the rant against Goldstein, the enemy within. Here I think of Donald Trump claiming that the Democrats are anti-military for not rubberstamping his budget, a dishonest as well as ridiculous charge, since both parties support high military spending. Indeed, high Pentagon spending is the one bipartisan area of agreement in Congress.
This is among the biggest problems in America today: the stoking of hate against the enemy within, e.g. “illegal” immigrants (rapists, gang members, killers, according to our president), Democrats who allegedly don’t support our military, rival politicians who should be “locked up,” protesters who should be punched and kicked and otherwise silenced, high school students who are dismissed as phonies and professional actors, and on and on.
Irrational fear is nothing new to America, of course. Consider the fear of communism that produced red scares after World Wars I and II. Consider how fears of the spread of communism led to criminal intervention in Southeast Asia and the death of millions of people there. Massive bombing, free-fire artillery zones, the profligate use of defoliants like Agent Orange, the prolongation of war without any regard for the suffering of peoples in SE Asia: that behavior constituted a crime of murderous intensity that was in part driven by hatred and fear.
And when hatred and fear are linked to tribalism and a xenophobic form of patriotism, murderous war becomes almost a certainty. When the zealots of hate are screaming for blood, it’s very hard to hear appeals for peace based on compassion and reason.
Anger, fear, aggression: that way leads to the dark side, as Yoda, that Jedi master, warned us. Hate too, Yoda says, must be resisted, lest one be consumed by it. Sure, he’s just an imaginary character in the “Star Wars” universe, but that doesn’t negate the truth of his message.
God is love, the Christian religion says. Why then are we so open to hate and fear?
I’ve never gotten excited about or interested in a particular sports team, whether professional or amateur. I don’t care whether a particular team wins or loses and I go out of my way not to watch games on TV or listen to a radio broadcast.
Prior to this year’s Super Bowl game, I listened to people chant, on the phone or in person, “Go Patriots” or “Go Eagles.” Even a Catholic priest at the end of a mass I attended recently couldn’t leave the altar before letting the parishioners know he was a Patriots fan.
Spectator sports have always been a secular religion in most developed countries but with no promise of any form of salvation, afterlife, or reincarnation. The most you can really expect from your team is winning a bet on the game. But spectator sports is a distraction with negative consequences, ultimately, to society and the individual sports fan—such as having no understanding of the actions of political parties.
And because each season of the year has its athletic contests there is no letup. A fan is deluged all year round with games as well as incessant commentaries on athletes and the points they score or might score. Athletic contests and players, even on the high school level, are a major topic of conversation, especially among adult males I view such conversations as not only boring but irrelevant to my own life, to what I would call meaningful concerns.
In fact, I would argue spectator sports discussions have no lasting therapeutic value in dealing with the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Political philosopher Noam Chomsky recently said, probably somewhat sarcastically, that if as much mental energy was expended in solving the social and economic problems of the world as is expended in trying to explain why a given team wins or loses a game, much socially and politically induced suffering and death could be eliminated.
Eavesdrop on virtually any conversation, especially at World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA playoff times, and you’ll hear conversations that would make you believe you were in a think-tank rivaling the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.
Now, as a sociologist, I realize the important function of sports in society. That function, of course, is a distraction from life’s existential problems and dilemmas. Death, loss of loved ones, nuclear war, global warming are certainly among those problems. And, most assuredly, being a spectator sports fanatic is a far better alternative than being a drug addict or engaging in anti-social behavior. I also admit spectator sports have a limited psycho-therapeutic effect on some people.
My quarrel is with the level of energy spent watching and then discussing sports events. Even expressing one’s preference for one team or another I find disturbing, mainly because I feel there are more worthwhile causes to champion. Agonizing, so it seems, over the prowess of individual players and their team’s chances of winning playoffs or championships is a waste of time and energy. Simply put, I cannot empathize in the slightest with the sports fan. In that respect I guess I’m a type of sociopath since sociopaths can’t empathize with other human beings in general.
Arguably, spectator sports also contribute to the “us” versus “them” perspective toward social life, the belief that life is not interesting or worthwhile unless “us” is always trying to defeat “them,” whether “them” be a rival team or country–in other words, not “us.”
The great (former) coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Could Lombardi’s philosophy be applied to our current president who is also an ardent sports fan? Could Donald Trump’s insistence on America becoming “great again,” with all the dire consequences to minority groups and the underclass, not to mention the world in general, be the by-product of his obsessive interest in spectator sports? At one time our president wanted to be owner of an NFL team. What does that tell us?
Two psychological processes seem to account for the prevalence of the typical sports fan. These are vicarious identification and reification. Vicarious identification is thinking that one “IS” actually the team he or she is watching. The team’s victory or defeat is his/her victory or defeat. Being able to enjoy plays, movies, and novels entails the same process; for the moment, one is a character in a work of fiction. The ability of consciousness (mind, soul, brain, spirit, if you prefer) to immerse itself in a story or situation that is fictitious is, for sure, one of the great joys of life. From time to time I’ve watched certain films or videos multiple times and can still fool myself into thinking that I don’t really know the outcome. Perhaps spectator sports allow male fans in particular to be the macho male, the alpha male they’re not in everyday life, without having to perform in any way. No need to resort to violent behavior if one vicariously identifies with a football team or professional wrestlers.
Reification is psychologically treating an abstract concept or mental construct as if it were real, as if it were empirical or tangible reality. Semanticists will say “the word is not the thing” or “the map is not the territory.” Nations, states, cities do not exist as realities (sui generis); they are only abstract concepts, in other words, words. People exist, athletes exist, and games are played, but the sports fan wants his/her “team” to win because the name of the team itself is regarded as if it were a live person or group of people.
It doesn’t matter, usually, who the real life players are or even if there are any real life players. It’s the “team” itself—the word is the thing. I once asked my students who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers whether they would still want the Steelers to defeat the Dallas Cowboys if the teams’ executives exchanged players and coaches. The Steelers fans said they would still support or root for the Steelers over the Cowboys. I tried to point out the error in their thinking, that there is no such reality as the “Steelers” or the “Cowboys,” that only players and their coaches exist. No, the Steelers fans would remain Steelers fans and want the team to win because they are “The Steelers.”
Existence precedes essence, say the existentialists. Existence is what is tangibly real, for example, what could physically maim, hurt, kill. Essence refers to words, ideas, concepts. (For example, essence would be the “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims–what we hear so much these days from our politicians in the wake of shooting violence.) Scoring a touchdown is “existence.” The team that fans roots for is “essence,” in other words, nothing but an idea with no more substance than the number “5.” When one regards spectator sports existentially it becomes difficult to be a fan, although one may enjoy viewing brilliantly executed plays on the field or in the arena.
My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection. Now, I have no doubt that one could be a sports fan, even a fanatical sports fan, and be a social activist, an artist, a scholar, a reflective person capable of deep meditation. I just see spectator sports as tending to obstruct or preclude intellectual and aesthetic development in the general population of a given country.
Professional and collegiate athletic events do benefit our economic system by creating all kinds of jobs and careers, and not just for the players. But spectator sports may also stand in the way of the fan being exposed to and contemplating the vital social and political issues of the times. It is reasonable to ask whether being a serious sports fan erodes participation in the democratic process. Why are most universities known for their teams and not for what their faculties teach? What’s the first thing an American thinks of when he or she thinks of “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” or “Penn State”? Is it higher learning? Or football?
Richard Sahn teaches sociology at a college in Pennsylvania.
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.
At the time of his Fourth of July Address, Douglass was about fifteen years removed from a state of enslavement he managed, against steep odds, to escape and had become an orator of note in abolitionist circles. Attesting to a sense of trepidation in accepting an invitation to speak before such a large audience on their august day of national celebration, Douglass praised the generation of 1776 (“your fathers,” he calls them) for “lov[ing] their country better than their own private interests” and for their “solid manhood” in “preferr[ing] revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”
Douglass then reminded his audience that, while it is easy in present times to celebrate the founders for resisting British oppression, “to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies” in the 1770s meant being pilloried and browbeaten as “plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.” Moving beyond this critique of the easy and self-congratulatory patriotism of his contemporaries, Douglass raised the prospect that the founders’ great deeds might even be evoked by men of tyrannical intent: “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”
Douglass went on to warn his listeners, and free citizens of the American republic generally, against shirking their own responsibility for carrying on the emancipatory tradition celebrated each Fourth of July–“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”
While there is much more to Douglass’s powerful address, his opening discourse on the patriotic meaning of the Fourth of July provides a way of dousing the “fire and fury” that has been generated by the right-wing media around the symbolic protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and seeing the significance of that protest with a quiet clarity.
Douglass’s Fourth of July Address warns against the self-serving belief that routinized, programmed patriotic gesture is equivalent to a true love of liberty. He daringly calls out those who would abuse patriotic gesture in order to control others. His words remind us that the struggle for freedom is always a work in progress and that it is too easy to celebrate its provisional achievement after the hard and risk-laden work is done by others.
Douglass’s speech is part of a tradition of exposing empty patriotic gesture and challenging citizens to live up to the emancipatory demands of true patriotism, a tradition which Colin Kaepernick and his emulators can be seen as stalwartly embracing. His speech serves as a powerful rejoinder to those who would, like Donald J. Trump, attempt to shame NFL player-protesters into anthem-standing conformity with transparently cynical references to the sacrifices of US veterans and members of the armed forces.
M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.