Posts Tagged ‘Frederick Douglass’

The following is the speech of Frederick Douglass, delivered when he was asked to speak to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1862.

Douglass spoke as a free Black man in the era of slavery. But his words resonate through the ages. They symbolically represent the slaves, the freed slaves living as virtual non-citizens, later under Jim Crow, and to this day as less than their white co-citizens, discriminated against in finance, housing, and employment, targeted by white supremacists and police. But these words speak as well, to the history of many people of color, to LGBTQI* people, to women, to communists and anarchists, to Muslims, polytheists, and people of all non-Christian faiths, to working people of all kinds. In short, these words can apply, to one degree or another, to most Americans, and they are an entirely accurate indictment of the USA as a whole.

On this 4th of July, as our nation works hard to erase the halting, insufficient progress we have made, as we lock people up for fleeing violence in which our country is complicit to varying degrees, as we lead the world to environmental catastrophe, as we, as a people, ignore the harm being done in our name within our borders and all around the planet, we should not be lighting off fireworks in celebration of war. We should not be reading from lofty, 18th century documents as if they have any relationship to the United States as it exists or has ever existed. We should be heeding the words of Frederick Douglass. To help us do that, here are those words.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (more…)

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I wrote a piece last week criticizing Americans for Peace Now for their stance on the Presbyterian divestment motion. But my criticism was as nothing compared to MJ Rosenberg’s, and he has now written a few piecesexploring this topic.

Protests against the Gaza War/Operation Cast Lead, in 2009

One difference between myself and MJ is that I spend little time worrying about the stance of J Street on this issue. I’m glad J Street is there; it’s a useful organization and I support it for what it does. But that’s not very much.

J Street is unalterably opposed to any sort of pressure on Israel. They are under the mistaken belief that if they prove they represent the majority of American Jews (compared to AIPAC, they do, but that majority is largely apathetic or lukewarm at best on Israel, while AIPAC’s backers, and those farther right, are zealously passionate and have a LOT more money devoted to their cause), this will convince Israel to change its policies. That’s well-intentioned, but naïve doesn’t begin to describe that view, one which is also completely insulated against political realities and, yes, pragmatism.

APN has a more nuanced approach, but as I pointed out, they still resist any real pressure on Israel, and ultimately, this is a strategy that has no hope to make the slightest dent in either US or Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians.

I must point out here that APN issued a clarification of their statement on the Presbyterian vote. I still think they have it wrong, but it does at least acknowledge that APN recognizes that the Presbyterians were trying to carefully target the occupation and not Israel as a whole.

I have no doubt that MJ is right in saying that keeping their donors from sending their dollars elsewhere is a big factor for APN. But I think there’s more here. I think there is truly a dedication to the notion that by publicizing the spread of Israeli settlements and of their impact; and by raising a Jewish, and Zionist, voice against them that they can get Israel to change its behavior.

To me, this stems from a basic misunderstanding of the words of Frederick Douglass, who said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

There are important truths in Douglass’ statement, but also some misleading wording.

By using the word “tyrant,” Douglass allows his American, and later Israeli, listeners to believe he is talking about some other people, not our own Liberal, democratic governments whom we love. He also equates “words” and “blows,” a grave error for inspiring social change, implying that words alone might be sufficient to make “power concede.” Doesn’t happen that way, I’m afraid. (more…)

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