Happy birthday, America


The world must look beyond US President George W. Bush and hope that the City Upon a Hill will once again become a force for good in the world.

NEXT Wednesday will be the 231st anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence. This landmark document proclaimed the freedom of the 13 American Colonies from British rule and the creation of the United States of America.

The Declaration was the first formal pronouncement by an organised political community of its right to choose its government.

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, it consisted of two parts. First, it contained some stirring principles of the “natural rights of man”. Second, it included a specific list of 27 grievances against King George III of England.

The rhetoric of liberty contained in the Declaration has reverberated in many parts of the world since 1776. “We hold these truths to be self evident”, said the Document:

  • THAT all men are created equal;

  • THAT they are endowed with unalienable rights;

  • THAT these rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;

  • THAT it is to secure these rights that government is instituted among men;

  • THAT governments so instituted derive their just powers from the consent of the governed;

  • THAT when a form of government becomes destructive of these ends, men may alter or abolish it; and

  • THAT men have the right, then, to institute new governments designed to effect their safety and happiness.

    The Declaration summed up three ideals that have animated American political theory over the last 231 years, and have inspired political movements throughout the world. These are the principles of human rights, political participation and limited government.

    The powerful words of Thomas Jefferson reiterated the view that natural or inherent rights are those that every person is born with. Natural rights are not given by the charity or generosity of the state.

    If all people are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it follows logically that they should be self-governing and not subject to the will of others, except with their own consent. This reasoning was the basis of the Declaration’s statement of the ideal of political participation.

    The Declaration’s third ideal – of limited government – was inspired by John Locke’s view that when people enter into a social contract to form a government, the powers they give to the government are limited.

    Locke did not think that the people had a duty to support a government not based upon consent. This doctrine of the right of resistance to a colonial power and of revolution was honed to a fine edge in American political theory.

    But what was remarkable about the American Revolution was that it was an intra-class revolution. All subsequent major revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries were led by men of peasant – or, at best, bourgeois – background: Robespierre, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro and Khomeini.

    But the leaders of the American Revolution were aristocrats. They set rules to control themselves and their own class. They did this by permitting the existence of conflicting interest groups in a check and balance relationship. The idea of check and balance was a touch of pure genius.

    Of course, there was much in the Declaration that was inconsistent with the sordid realities of American life. Slavery, for example, flourished in the US despite the noble statement that “all men are created equal”. Jefferson himself was a slave owner.

    His fellow citizens’ unwillingness to resolve this particular conflict between noble ideals and shabby practice was to cost millions of Americans, black and white, dearly in lives and money in later decades.

    Of the seven self-evident truths of the Declaration, five were either ignored or played down in the later constitutional document.

    Nevertheless, the words of the Declaration have inspired countless groups in America and elsewhere to aspire for the blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for most of recent history America has been regarded as a sentinel of democracy and human rights.

    The United States was one of the main architects of the UN Charter. On many issues it played a constructive role in world affairs, and undertook actions that earned it the respect of the democratic world.

    It favoured de-colonisation. After some initial reluctance, it came around to opposing apartheid in South Africa. It condemned the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez. It gave Marshall Aid to Europe shattered by the ravages of World War II. It provided aid (though with strings attached) to many Third World countries.

    But now and then its Jekyll and Hyde character manifested itself in hegemonic and brutal policies abroad. It used atomic weapons on the innocent population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki even though the Japanese Army was on the verge of collapse.

    Between 1945 and this year it unleashed bombs on 24 countries in the Third World, and four in Europe. It supports genocide and apartheid in the occupied territories of Palestine.

    Since the elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency, Dr Jekyll’s metamorphosis into the cruel Mr Hyde is, sadly, very evident. A nation born on the ideals of liberty and justice has evolved into a brutal hegemony.

    In this Hobbesian state of nature, Bush has appointed himself as the Leviathan, a ruler with absolute power, and with terrifying means to usher in the neo-con’s vision of a New American Century.

    Even those who admire the United States are worried about America’s unilateralism, and about how America has turned its back on the world. Bush’s America is at odds with the world and with its own ideals.

    The United States has walked away from treaty after treaty. It opposed the creation of the International Criminal Court. It is waging a brutal, illegal and colonial war in Iraq. Though claiming to be a peaceful nation, it is at endless war. The slogan “In God We Trust” appears to have been replaced with “In Arms We Trust”.

    Many across the globe feel disappointed and betrayed that America has turned away from the international standards it helped to create. The dissonance between its principled professions and its flawed practices is too evident.

    Ironically, Bush is guilty of many charges that the Declaration of Independence hurled at George III of England.

    But we must not despair; America’s ideals run deep. It will take more than one president to dislodge them. The world must look beyond George Bush and hope that the City Upon a Hill will once again become a force for good in the world.

    Dr Shad Faruqi is a Professor of Law at UiTM.

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