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Troubling, The U.S. Declaration of Independence

Modern, recent, European, the concept of the human being as a rights bearing subject dates only from around the seventeenth century. This in itself isn’t troubling. (Europe has given us good things: cricket, paan and kokis from the countries that colonized us alone.) But the celebrated texts of its earliest articulations, like John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689), produce the human not uniformly, homogeneously, but in heterogeneous, dissymmetrical categories. The U.S. Declaration of Independence (DOI, 1776) resonates with Locke; despite famously asserting that “all men are created equal,” it qualifies that statement, distinguishes between those gifted rights, subject, and the unequal, those without, other.

Such anomalies may seem anachronisms today, rectified by the U. N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes all humans, including women, as so bestowed. However, the de jure and de facto do not coincide: the global rights regime iterates the older, eurocentric structure, repeats it with a difference. It differentiates, to use Gayatri Spivak’s terms, the powerful, that right, subject, from the wronged, powerless, object.

(Summarily, perhaps too quickly delineated: fully human, the subject to this frame possesses reason, autonomy, sovereignty, enjoys agency; also human, the object nevertheless gets acted upon; incompletely human, the other lacks cardinal attributes of the subject.)

Take, as example, the International Crisis Group. It would usually issue a series of reports on a country if the elected but dysfunctional government could barely pass legislation, recently exceeding four years to enact a budget. If its police routinely, publicly kills unarmed members of a minority with impunity, at an average of three every day so far this year, a minority that disproportionately fills its jails. The same jails empty of its wealthy bankers widely accepted as corrupt. If its politicians, in a system of brilliantly legalized bribery, accept jobs upon retirement in the corporate sector – after performing favors for that sector while in office. And if its state violates human rights across the globe, colossally, again with impunity. Untroubled by the record, however, the ICG refuses to impugn the U.S.

Righters cannot wrong (even when they do); the wronged never right. Phrased differently, to emphasize the inextricability of the concepts, writers cannot wrong; the wronged, not permitted to write, not quite. Narrate, testify, yes; beg, plead, certainly; cry – copiously (writers will provide tissues); draw meaning, conclusions, issue authoritative reports, not on your life. Bottom line: only righters author.

A subsequent essay will address the contemporary transnational enforcement of human rights, led by the United States, arguably the most egregious global violator of such rights this century. As portent, let’s read a piece of writing, the U.S.’s founding document, DOI. Keeping in mind that a text, any text, gets marked by forces, disciplines, institutions usually unconscious to its author/s. Reading finds a text different from its staging, self-presentation. In this case, that “all men” actually disqualifies, eliminates many. DOI says more, and therefore less, than we, or at least liberals, have been trained, convinced, interpellated into believing.

A troubling, profoundly eurocentric text, one that informs, continues to shape our moment, it requires close attention. At stake: is the concept of the human that founds, grounds rights properly universal or hierarchical?

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A social and a political document, consisting of many interwoven levels, these two in particular intersect awkwardly. The latter detaches, the former attaches: DOI affirms separation, dissociation from Britain while reaffirming connection, association. It desires the dissolution solely of “political bands” that bind the two countries; ties of “consanguinity,” blood, fraternity “between inhabitants of these States” and “our Brittish [sic] brethren” will survive George Hanover’s tyrannical record outlined in the text. (Commonly known as King George III, Hanover, an exalted breed, superior subject requires no surname for identification.) Such a formulation finds blood thicker than slaughter, produces inhabitants of the U.S. as exclusively of British (European) ancestry. We would call them white. Which begs the question of the status of others without a filial relation to Britain, Africans, then enslaved, and Native Americans, categories of humans DOI admits, implicitly and explicitly, but cannot accommodate.

Raising the problem of race, such othering should trouble the reader committed to equality. After all, many of the U.S.’s “founding fathers” – this state apparently birthed itself without mothers – actually owned, bought and sold human beings as property. Thomas Jefferson, DOI’s author-in-chief, the U.S.’s third president, even raped one, Sarah “Sally” Hemmings, repeatedly, for years. (Locke held stock in a company that trafficked in humans, commonly known as the slave trade.)

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The assertion of fraternity, of course, raises the question of gender. When juxtaposed with the claim that the vested, gifted are men, DOI vindicates a confraternal quarrel, a bout between boys. But not all. The text privileges a certain class of the U.S. male population as especially wronged by Hanover. He may have “destroyed the lives of our people” in general; nevertheless, a segment, the righters, suffers such oppression disproportionately.

DOI seeks to “let Facts be submitted to a candid world” of Hanover’s many inequities “totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation,” including inhibiting commerce, extorting taxes and limiting trial by jury. (Candid also means white. Like I’ve said before, you can learn a lot merely by checking the dictionary.) One frame would find this true. To another, that reads closely, attends to class and gender, such acts could only trouble those wealthy enough to trade, pay levies, qualified to serve on juries. DOI proclaims all men equal. It produces some as more aggrieved than others. To right these wrongs this particular group, “the Representatives of the united States of America,” the writers, signers, both object, of repression, and subject, of resistance, “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” oppose Hanover with “manly firmness.”

The poor, unfortunate, dishonorable, not quite manly, implicitly lack the capacity to so pledge. The text says more than its words in a literal reading. One reads closely, carefully, precisely in order to divulge the more and the less. More or less.

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The rights bearing subject, then, emerges in DOI severely qualified: white, male, rich, honorable, he is the man, gentleman, of quality. Or, since every subject produces its other, not female, subaltern. The text hierarchizes the white. (According to the U.S. National Archives, “At the time of the first Presidential election in 1789, only 6% of the population – white, male property-owners – was eligible to vote.”) While doing so, producing self and other within the group even as it consolidates the group, one may wonder: does it also oppose the white, a whole, an inside, to others outside? As hinted above, it does.

The renowned statement requires citation in full: “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.” In this articulation, (hu)man rights, beginning with life, are an endowment, gift – of God.

Another qualification: the subject is Christian.

DOI invokes the divine four times. The first, following Genesis, the opening book of the Bible, as omnipotent: author of nature, including men (and, presumably, women, though as afterthought). The second, bequeathor, benefactor: endower of rights, which emerge as theological, not natural or contractual. The third, decider-in-chief: “Supreme Judge of the world,” whose protection (four) the U.S. invokes, relies upon against Britain given the “rectitude,” justness of its case, cause. Making God the cheerleader-in-chief of (the establishment of) the United States.

Authorized, countersigned by God Himself, DOI is not a secular text.

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“All men,” then, amounts to less than all men; some whites, as noted, being lesser men. Lesser still, DOI finds non-whites barely human. The last entry in that list of “Facts,” inequities alludes to further enemies: “He [Hanover] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

“Domestic insurrections” refers to rebellions by Africans transported to slavery in the U.S. (and elsewhere). DOI finds them domestic, inside its territory, threatening, the enemy within. By an incredible twist of the facts, it evicts Native Americans outside; or, rather, to the border of “our” frontier, the enemy without. Staging himself as native, of the land, the import deports the Native, vindicates appropriation, theft, passes their land as ours. The white consolidates itself against two groups of non-whites.

The founding document of the United States of America, a settler colony named after a European, produces the Native American – eurocentrically (mis)named Indian – as savage, an inferior breed, despicable class of human that, like today’s “terrorist,” disregards the rules of war. A weapon of mass destruction, this beast kills women, children and men, old and young, poor and rich without distinction, mercy.

Opposed to the subject, the man, this nonChristian, uncivilized, dishonorable, mass murdering, terrifying, barely human entity cannot be entitled to rights, beginning with life.

The founding text of the U.S. portends, perhaps even promises the decimation of an entire group it others as unmanly.

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Grounded upon many hierarchies, the Declaration of Independence refuses to be read as a text of human emancipation.  That in itself should trouble those who celebrate it. Its buttressing the structure of the contemporary global human rights regime should trouble us all.