Two hundred and twenty six years ago, a newly declared country on this land fought a war against an occupying colonial power. Using guns, geography, and a superior military strategy, it struggled against the arrogance of British power. Underlying the complaints against unjust taxes, arbitrary authority, and humiliating treatment was a single theme: democracy. A people cannot be free unless it can determine its own future through its own political institutions.
Imagine if King George III had pronounced that the taking up of guns against the legitimate authority of the British was unacceptable. Of course, he did. Imagine further, this time against the facts, that the British had had the military power to make that pronouncement stick. Would that have rendered the American Revolution not only unsuccessful but also illegitimate? Or would it have been better to say that might does not make right?
Imagine another scenario. King George III, having successfully defeated the colonists, announces that perhaps we are entitled to nationhood, but only after we change leadership. We must have an election in which we choose leadership that the British can live with, and then perhaps some form of independence can be discussed. Would we have welcomed this proposal or found it to be a further exercise of British aggression?
Would we, perhaps, have taken up whatever means were at our disposal to rid ourselves of this foreign occupation?
Tonight the shoe is on the other foot. Two hundred and twenty six years after our own struggle for independence, another George (the Second this time) has announced that a people under foreign occupation do not deserve nationhood unless it votes for leadership acceptable to the United States. In the meantime, he, with the enthusiastic support of those who govern us, continues to offer billions of dollars in aid and military hardware to an occupying power intent on further dispossession of those people. Had we been those people, what would we have done? When those people were us, what did we do?
There are those who will protest that my analogy is misleading. The United States, they will say, is not occupying anybody. Another country is. We are just trying to broker a peace that at the same time avoids terrorism. Such a protest would be lame. The United States and the occupying power are as one on policy toward the occupied, and always have been. The amount of aid, the vetoes in the Security Council, and the rhetoric from those elected to speak in the name of the U.S. all point in the same direction. There is a seamlessness between the U.S. and the occupying power that is rarely glimpsed in colonial history.
So let us turn back to our imagined scenario. King George, having defeated us militarily, and having laid down his demands upon us, decides on further policy changes. He divides the land of American into various regions, and posts sentries at all the roads, where people have to line up in order to pass from one region to another. At these checkpoints, the sentries often degrade the colonists: strip-searching them in front of their families, making them wait unnecessarily for hours, turning them back arbitrarily. This is not all. The King sends his soldiers to gut our roads, blow up our public institutions, commandeer private homes to shelter his soldiers, cut our water supplies, and parade through what is left of our streets.
And this is not the worst of it. The worst of it is that all the while, he is sending British citizens, loyal to his policies, to strip of us of our land and call it their own. He is gradually expropriating the land of America for British use. The King, of course, does not put it this way (although perhaps some of his less discreet ministers are not so careful). He says that he is protecting the British from colonial assault. And the newspapers and broadsheets across Europe dutifully print his defense as though it had something to do with the reality of his policies.
What would we have done? Would some of us have attacked the British settlers who expropriated our land? Would there have been those desperate enough among us to have taken the battle to British soil, offering our own lives in order to terrorize the British into leaving? Or would we instead have said, “Yes, King, you have won and you are right. We will vote for the leadership you recommend, and will hope that all works out for us in the end.” Is that the spirit we celebrate tonight?
One further twist to this Independence Day scenario. Imagine that Britain, by itself, were not strong enough to continue its occupation without foreign support. Imagine that a superior power provided it with the economic and military wherewithal to enact its policies. Would there be those among us who would have been willing to attack that third country, with the means at our disposal, in order to motivate it to remove itself from the field? And if they had, what would the rest of us have said about it?
What is it, exactly, that we Americans celebrate every Fourth of July?
Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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