By J. Lee Miller, Jr.
Every Fourth of July if you are my friend on Facebook you get to endure two things from me. The first is a posting of the Declaration of Independence (the original Brexit) and my “’Murica meme dump.”
All throughout the year I collect pro-America memes. I am sure you have seen memes like these: the ones that say “There are two kinds of countries in the world: the ones that use the metric system and the one that has been to the moon.” Most of these are tongue in cheek, over the top, made to be utterly ridiculous on purpose – you know, the American way. Some are a little more… spicy. Some push my libertarianism out there to get people thinking a bit: “Let us spy on every home and watch every street corner – Said no founding father. Ever.”
However, this year it just doesn’t feel the same. Mainly due to the George Floyd protests, I am just not sure I can do it this year. How can I put out all these statements of being pro-America when America does so much wrong?
Please don’t misunderstand me. I already knew that black lives mattered. I was for defunding the police before it was cool. The 13th lives on my “continue watching” list on Netflix. But everything in recent months just made it feel different. It made me think should July 4th be my second favorite non-religious holiday? I am not scared to challenge my own beliefs and see what happens, so I began thinking more about it.
I was watching a TED talk by Baratunde Thurston, “How to Deconstruct Racism One Headline at a Time” one day attempting to expand my – what I already considered extensive knowledge for a white person – knowledge and understanding of racism and systemic oppression.
During the hilarious and thought-provoking talk, a line struck me, and I simply could not get it out of my head. Thurston stated, “This word game reminded me that there is a structure to white supremacy; as there is to misogyny; as there is to all systemic abuses of power – Structure is what makes them systemic.” I simply could not get this out of my head. Structure is what makes them systemic.
I will admit to you, for all my “wokeness” that I was so proud of, I had difficulty with the idea of “systemic racism” or “systemic misogyny.” For some reason it just conjured up in my mind this dark smoke-filled room with just white people or men or simply white men planning and plotting how to keep this other group down. Yes, those things probably did happen in the 1950’s but its 2020 – people aren’t doing that anymore, my mind would say. What I did not understand though was that is exactly the thing about systems of oppression: they do not need a smoke-filled room to implement oppression because it’s a system which works no matter who is in it. This is why good cops are mad right now, why teachers get upset when public schools are criticized, and politicians who try to do their best get so frustrated – there are good people trying to do good but the system around them perpetuates the negative outcomes. A system of oppression continues to work regardless of who oversees it. This TED Talk though had really got me thinking. I was really putting some pieces together and I just could not get it out of my head.
A couple of days before watching the TED Talk, I was reading the Declaration, like all Americans do, just for fun. Just soaking-in some of it’s good phrases. Shortly, after listening to this TED Talk, it hit me that the Declaration of Independence challenged the systemic abuses of power in England. The Declaration states that “all men are created equal” throwing into the face of the king any idea that he is somehow better than other people simply because he is king. Going on to state that people have rights not because the king gave them in the Bill of Rights 1688 or the Magna Carta, but rather by God, a power that even the King of England could not deny. The Declaration goes even further by stating that in order to protect these rights “governments are instituted by men” not by a king, but men – the people. The Declaration detailed the many abuses of power that the King, and in many ways Parliament too, had enacted on the colonies at the time. If you set this list of grievances side by side with the American Bill of Rights, it becomes abundantly clear why the Bill of Rights was so important to the founders.
I would argue the Declaration setups every single advancement made in this country in the fight against systemic abuses of power by this government. Abraham Lincoln saw that the end of the American institution of slavery began with the words “all men are created equal.” In The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln challenges every American from the grave:
I am beginning to believe it is these words that every liberty movement, from then until now, has unconsciously looked toward and knew it was their duty to further – that truly all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with rights that no person or government can alter, and it is our duty to those who have gone before us to further this idea. It is for this reason that we need to continue to challenge the current system of oppression not simply because it is the right thing to do but because it is the most American of ideas.
While I hold the Declaration of Independence dear, perhaps it is time for an update to the list of grievances against our current system and a reaffirmation of these rights:
- The officers of this government take the lives of citizens without trial or conviction.
- This government enforces warrants with no notice to the occupants of the building.
- This government has placed the number of barriers between its citizens and economic mobility so as to inhibit their economic progress.
- This government on a consistent basis has unequally applied convictions to people of color.
I will not pretend to be capable of such elegant writing as the writers of the Declaration of Independence, but I think you get the idea. It is time to list our grievances again to hold our leaders accountable, or even still run for office ourselves, to change the system of oppression that we currently challenge.
For me this year and from now on, when I celebrate the Fourth of July I will not simply light some fireworks, eat some burgers, and celebrate leaving England. I will celebrate my fellow Americans for standing up to a system of oppression by the greatest military force at time, for ending the American institution of slavery, for establishing a woman’s right to vote, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, LGBTQ+ rights and that Black Lives Matter.
Let us not simply focus on the bad but recognize and celebrate how far we have come while focusing on where we still need to go. While I do not like everything America has done or is doing, I do love everything that she is supposed to be.
Happy Independence Day.