Monday, 14 November 2016

The Land of Liberty: Guns, Prejudice and Hatred

by Isabella Ingram

The signing of the US constitution
“Where liberty dwells, there is my country,” is a quotation credited to founding father Benjamin Franklin, and serves as a perfect summation of America’s most integral value. From the growth of animosity amongst British colonies to the signing of the constitution in 1787, Americans moulded an identity that is founded upon the principle of liberty. Still today it is the rallying cry of a whole range of different ideological positions, from anti-racist activists to those defending their right to arms.

No symbol is more frequently alluded to amongst these campaigners than the American constitution. In his work ‘The Audacity of Hope’, President Barack Obama emphatically declared: “Conservative or liberal, we are all constitutionalists.” It is a unifying power, fusing together people of all ideologies and ethnicities in the collective, American promotion of freedom. To criticise it would be to commit an act of political suicide. And yet, this emblem of union and liberty had to be adjusted to abolish slavery. It had to be modified to allow women the vote. Its second amendment, the right to bear arms, has allowed for America’s annual gun violence fatalities to vastly exceed that of any other first world nation.

Of course, it would be wrong to argue that the constitution was not relatively revolutionary for its time. Although democratic principles can be traced back to the era of ancient Greece, the American constitution embodied Enlightenment notions regarding popular sovereignty that were still alarmingly scarce in the eighteenth century world. However, to still herald it today is ridiculous – in fact, it is the persistence of its reign as the foundation of American politics that has facilitated the continuance of racism, misogyny and gun violence, as these are not refuted in its initial form. Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. president, believed that any nation’s constitution should expire after a period of nineteen years: “If it be enforced any longer, it is an act of force and not of right.”

What Americans choose to ignore is the fact that the definition of liberty hailed by the founding fathers is one that is now quite different from our own. Whilst the eighteenth century concept of liberty cried out for the privileges of plantation owners, oppressed by the domination of the mother country, it failed to even recognise the rights of the black slaves that fuelled their businesses. Freedom was not universally applicable, but the intrinsic possession of all straight, white, male Christians. For this reason, the constitution could be criticised for enabling an American legacy of discrimination – from the genocide against the Native American community to the Ku Klux Klan, the slave trade to the Islamophobia that has pervaded America since the 9/11 terror attacks.

The victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump over Hilary Clinton in attaining the position of president-elect has been described as a ‘white backlash’(or "whitelash") - the product of the white man’s sense of diminishing authority, stirred by the success of first black president Barack Obama – proving that America’s inability to adapt and accept is here to stay. For as long as this ‘land of liberty’ clutches onto its ancient, outdated document, it will continue to be a nation of distrust, discrimination and violence. 

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