On this Fourth of July, the holiday when Americans wave flags and march in parades and sing God Bless America while eating hot dogs, and speechify about why this is the greatest country on God’s earth—on this day I am thinking something else. I am thinking of how the Declaration we profess to celebrate as one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric ever penned—by Thomas Jefferson, probably our greatest citizen ever—flew in the face of what Jefferson himself, a slave owner, knew: that saying “all men are created equal” was a lie (and not just because it excluded half the human race, which it did). It was a lie because at the very time he penned it, many of the colleagues pledging their sacred honor to defend the newly birthing country were slave owners like himself. And that these same men would shortly, after winning from Great Britain their precious independence, collude in a Constitution that sanctioned the enslavement of black Africans in direct contradiction to their fine words condemning their “enslavement” by Great Britain, and coldly count them, the African slaves, as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of representation in their hallowed House of Representatives. It is a hypocrisy, a contradiction, a violation of every law of man and god they so piously claimed to revere, and it has persisted, in spite of a violent war and continual legislation attempting to end it, for nearly 250 years.
I am also thinking of the brave souls who have taken this document seriously, and are even now paying the price for that position. I mean Pfc Bradley Manning—the man who released the stunning video of outright murder by helicopter in Iraq, as well as thousands of battle-action and state department documents to Wikileaks that have proved excruciatingly embarrassing to those in power—who is now on trial for his life in a military court. I mean Julian Assange, the man who set up the site known as Wikileaks, and who is spending his second year in the Ecuadorian embassy in London because he knows if he steps out, he will be sent to Sweden to be prosecuted not for alleged sexual harassment but for his role in exposing United States’ crimes. I mean Edward Snowden, the former CIA analyst and NSA-contracted worker for Booz Allen Hamilton, who released thousands of secret documents to Glenn Greenwald of England’s Guardian, revealing the wholesale spying by the NSA and its contractors on Americans and just about everyone else in the world—who is now a man without a country being hounded by the US authorities for violating the 1917 law known as the Espionage Act.
All of these people, like Daniel Ellsberg before them, are being pursued as if they were the most dangerous of terrorists for the crime of letting the American people know what their government is doing. They are speaking out. They have taken seriously the right stated in the First Amendment that speech is protected by the Constitution of the United States, and that their duty as citizens is to let their fellow citizens know what their government is doing behind closed doors. That those hitherto secret actions of their government are dangerous and criminal and should be known by the American people. For this they have been charged with “unauthorized communication” of the information they have been privy to, and theft of classified government property. Many in Congress and elsewhere have also charged them with providing aid and comfort to the enemy, i.e. being traitors to their country, which is punishable by death. The military is trying to pin this charge on Bradley Manning. But the truth is that what he and the others are really being charged with is a form of free speech. A from of truth-telling mandated by the Nuremberg precedents. These truths, though, have not set them free. These truths have set upon them the all-powerful forces of the most all-powerful country in the history of the world. For these truths have proven embarrassing to that all-powerful country and its alleged leaders, and therefore must be punished, must be discouraged, must be exterminated from the armory of those who would dare to tell the truth in the future. Which is why most other leaders around the world have kept their distance from these truth-tellers. Incendiaries, spies, war profiteers, assassins—these are acceptable to and welcomed by leaders everywhere. But truth-tellers, as Socrates learned two thousand years ago, are anathema. A terror.
In this regard, Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s Untold History of the United States has reminded me of the words of the great labor leader of the early part of the 20th century, EugeneVictor Debs. The uncanny thing about Debs is that his words protesting war and corporate corruption in America could have been written yesterday. Debs, for example, was actually arrested and tried under the very same act, The Espionage Act, that is now being used to prosecute Edward Snowden. Debs was one of its first victims. Having already been targeted as a rabble rouser (he had helped found the IWW and the American Railway Union), and having run for President on the Socialist Party ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, Debs was speaking out regularly against American involvement in World War I. One speech in particular, given in Canton Ohio in June 1918, led the authorities—who had passed the Espionage Act to discourage just such “traitorous speech”—to arrest and try him for sedition. Debs hired no lawyers and called no witnesses; rather, he defended himself not with denials of his guilt but with the logic and truth of his position. It cost him. In September of 1918, Debs was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Undaunted, in 1920 he ran for President again, this time from his prison cell in Atlanta’s Federal Prison. He also appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which ruled that while his words did not technically violate the Espionage Act, they had the effect of obstructing the draft, since he had praised some of those already imprisoned for resisting it. He stayed in jail, eventually to be released for time served by President Warren Harding in 1921, and died in 1926 of heart failure.
Aside from his accomplishments as an activist, it is Debs’ words that make him relevant in our time. His words, in addition to the fact that the infamous Espionage Act under which he was convicted is still being used to silence whistleblowers in America, are what I would like to highlight. Here, for instance, are some excerpts from that Canton, OH speech, excerpts that attack false patriotism of the kind we are likely to see on Independence Day, as well as war, the master class that is behind all wars, the unfairness of judges and courts, the uselessness of conventional political parties, and the murder of truth and truth-tellers.
They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. This is too much, even for a joke. But it is not a subject for levity; it is an exceedingly serious matter…
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.
To whom do the Wall Street Junkers in our country marry their daughters? After they have wrung their countless millions from your sweat, your agony and your life’s blood, in a time of war as in a time of peace, they invest these untold millions in the purchase of titles of broken-down aristocrats, such as princes, dukes, counts and other parasites and no-accounts. Would they be satisfied to wed their daughters to honest workingmen? To real democrats? Oh, no! They scour the markets of Europe for vampires who are titled and nothing else. And they swap their millions for the titles, so that matrimony with them becomes literally a matter of money.
These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.
… The other day they sentenced Kate Richards O’Hare to the penitentiary for five years. Think of sentencing a woman to the penitentiary simply for talking. The United States, under plutocratic rule, is the only country that would send a woman to prison for five years for exercising the right of free speech. If this be treason, let them make the most of it.
Who appoints our federal judges? The people? In all the history of the country, the working class have never named a federal judge. There are 121 of these judges and every solitary one holds his position, his tenure, through the influence and power of corporate capital. The corporations and trusts dictate their appointment. And when they go to the bench, they go, not to serve the people, but to serve the interests that place them and keep them where they are.
Why, the other day, by a vote of five to four—a kind of craps game—come seven, come ‘leven —they declared the child labor law unconstitutional—a law secured after twenty years of education and agitation on the part of all kinds of people. And yet, by a majority of one, the Supreme Court, a body of corporation lawyers, with just one exception, wiped that law from the statute books, and this in our so-called democracy, so that we may continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits for the Junkers of Wall Street. And this in a country that boasts of fighting to make the world safe for democracy! The history of this country is being written in the blood of the childhood the industrial lords have murdered. (see: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/eugenedebscantonspeech.html
I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone…
I believe in the Constitution of the United States. Isn’t it strange that we Socialists stand almost alone today in defending the constitution of the United States? The revolutionary fathers who had been oppressed under king rule understood that free speech and free press and the right of free assemblage by the people were the fundamental principles of democratic government. The very first amendment to the constitution reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
That is perfectly plain English. It can be understood by a child. I believe the revolutionary fathers meant just what is here stated…That is the right that I exercised at Canton on the 16th day of last June…
I have told you that I am no lawyer, but it seems to me that I know enough to know that if Congress enacts any law that conflicts with this provision in the Constitution, that law is void. If the Espionage law finally stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead. If that law is not the negation of every fundamental principle established by the Constitution, then certainly I am unable to read or to understand the English language.
…With every drop of blood in my veins I despise Kaiserism and all that Kaiserism expresses and implies. I have my sympathy with the struggling, suffering people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live, I have sympathy with them all. I would, if I could, establish a social system that would embrace them all.
Then, after having been found guilty, and before being sentenced, Debs addressed the court again.
Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship within all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
Finally, even though he ran for President several times, and led the fight for unions and the causes of labor, Debs expressed his suspicion of, his contempt for most leaders. This excerpt is also from his Canton, Ohio Speech, June 1918:
I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
That was Eugene V. Debs. Everyone should read him, read his speeches, read about his dedication to the cause to which he committed his life. It was, yes, Socialism and Debs made no bones about it, nor about his belief that unions were crucial in the fight for fairness, nor that he was for cooperatives and the critical point that the fruit of labor should go to the people who do the work. Too bad there isn’t someone like him in our midst today. We could use another Eugene V. Debs, if for nothing else than to remind us what independence and free speech and courage in a public figure are really about.