Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

When I was in school in sleepy and complacent old England - back in the days when the world seemed simpler - with Nazism and fascism having been defeated and a neat cold war divide imposed - my history teacher asked us to memorise the American Declaration of Independence. I did so willingly for it encapsulated so much of what I already believed. I will quote it here before I get down to the substance of this post.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

My history teacher, although I did not know it then,, was clearly a radical. We were still children of the British Empire - stuffed with the sterile and out-dated ideas of the Victorian age. This was, to me, a call to action. I now know how much of this declaration was due to the thinking of Tom Paine - the apostle of liberty against tyranny. Be that as it may, I was and remained inspired by the words therein enshrined. Later, as I became more aware, i felt uneasy about the exclusion of women from this vision and the realisation that Jefferson, among others among the signatories, was a slave owner and that they saw no problem with this. The words, however, remained and served as a founding statement of my own beliefs. I can still recite them.

Which makes the recent history of the US deeply painful to me. It was founded on the principle of the equality of all human beings. The fact that the blindness of the time and privilege of the founders denied some human beings those rights is, in fact, irrelevant. The document remains. And yet, so many in the US seem to be unaware of its implications. Nowhere does it say that US citizens have more rights than any other human beings. Nowhere does it say that some people are less worthy to pursue happiness and enjoy life and liberty than others. And yet, both within and without the territory of the US this declaration is more honoured in the breach than the observance. Imperial wars - of the kind that Tom Paine condemned so fiercely are now - and arguably have been since the settlement of the West - being openly fought. From a fierce resistance to tyranny, the USA has evolved to become the tyrant most of the world fears. George III could only have dreamed of the imperial dominance now exercised, arbitrarily and brazenly, by the descendants of those who fought for liberty from him.

I was reminded of this on a recent youtube video of protesters accusing Obama of defying the US Constitution with his proposed health care reforms - none of which seem to me to be highly radical. Many of the protesters and commenters talked of property rights and said that a democratically elected government had no business levying taxes in order to provide health care for those who could not provide it for themselves. These people accused Obama of being fascist, Nazi, communist and muslim.

The thing is, the declaration says that the sole purpose of government is to secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is the statement of principle with which the USA declared itself to be a new thing in the world. But none of the principles declared to self -evident can apply when - according to the US census bureau 15.8% of American citizens are uninsured and therefore not eligible for full health care. All three principles are violated here. It is a scandal. It must be addressed.

And yet the rhetoric of the US proclaims itself as the champion of human rights around the world. This is the justification for the terror it has created in so many regions. And, at the same time, it is violating the very principles on which it was founded. As far as I can read, Obama's reform is not that radical. And yet it has provoked such bile and hatred that I have begun to despair of the USA.

I am not anti-American. I am, as Tom Paine, Washington, Jefferson and Adams, anti-imperialist and anti-injustice. The USA has lost its way. I pray to Inanna it will find it again.


redjade said...

' is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.'

this is the essence of revolution.

Idris said...

I have always thought so. That a country born in a revolution and espousing, in its founding document, the principles of basic human rights should have travelled so far from them is nothing short of a tragedy.

Whatever reservations I have about Obama, and they are many, his election proves that the American people, as opposed the lawless corporations who have hi-jacked the nation, have seen through the lies and distortions and want something better. I hope that they will get it - and if they don't start insisting on it.

Despite the history of the last 70-odd years, I retain my faith in the basic decency of the American public who have been betrayed by those they trusted to lead them - from both parties.