"The democratic principle, enunciated in the words of the Declaration of Independence, declared that government was secondary, that the people who established it were primary. Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people, and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world."
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
A little over a month ago, I watched a movie wherein a recent immigrant to the United States signs a copy of the Declaration of Independence he comes across on display in a local courthouse. He is arrested for defacing public property and is put on trial. To defend himself, he recites the Declaration, word for word. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think I could have written my thesis on this thirty-minute segment alone. The man literally inscribes himself onto this defiant statement of freedom, aligning himself with the nation’s founders and claiming their articulation of liberty for himself. This in turn makes him both more and less “American”; by asserting his dedication to the nation’s fundamental, philosophical principles, he betrays its more prosaic laws regarding public comportment. Of course, this act of civic disobedience mirrors that performed by those who signed the original Declaration. Citizenship is once again linked to crimes performed enthusiastically as statements of individuality and of group identity.
When defending himself in court, the man expresses his desire for the words of the Declaration of Independence to ring out around the world, to be seized upon by those in need of its soothing assertion of self-evident truths. In the above quotation, Zinn also implies the universality of the Declaration, but from an alternative perspective. Whereas the man in the film advocates for the words’ recontextualization in foreign lands, Zinn locates in the Declaration a system of self-reflection through which “the people” can evaluate their connection to the rest of the world. In both instances, individuality and commonality coincide to influence perspectives; individual people interpret the texts differently, giving rise to distinct, larger movements. For the man in the film, peoples around the world can feel a sense of affiliation with the sentiments of the Declaration and claim them for their own. For Zinn, people, be they Americans or otherwise, must examine this assertion of independence in order to determine how and if to assert that freedom and its various manifestations abroad. The man in the film, overwhelmed by his enthusiasm for his new country of residence, impulsively writes himself into its history of national and individual self-determination; Zinn, in contrast, articulates a need to understand the communal basis of the founders’ actions as part of an even larger whole. In order to understand our freedoms, we must understand those of others and how distinct modes of liberation can coexist, or if they can.
Upon returning to a country that has been systematically ravaged by the United States, I became increasingly aware of the global need to evaluate what is the “decent way to relate to [our] fellow human beings all over the world.” The systems that have governed our local, national, and international functions are crumbling, and their destruction necessitates a reconsideration of our impulsive need to assert ourselves as individuals while we simultaneously cling to communal notions of identity. Many of us have lost the impulsive enthusiasm of the man in the film along with Zinn’s far-reaching, transnational vision. We have become increasingly isolated within ourselves, defined and repulsed by our homelands and how they have defined us. However, the porousness of globalization seems to suggest that we are more adrift than ever and should therefore be better equipped to relate to those around us. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Instead, we remain suspended in a supposedly nation-less world, frustrated and confused. I know, by virtue of where and to whom I was born, that I have been gifted certain privileges and rights that people elsewhere may never experience. I have made it my life’s mission to put to good use the talents I do have by helping others achieve what would otherwise be denied them by an increasingly stratified and pessimistic world. Nonetheless, how to go about doing that remains a tricky proposition. What does democracy mean in the United States? In Mexico? In countries throughout the world? How can the people of these diverse places unite in solidarity and in recognition of their need of and love for each other? Is such a thing possible?
With all of the political turbulence happening throughout the world, one thing needs to be articulated loudly: the future of democracy depends on the people, how they view themselves, and how they view themselves in relation to the rest of the world. We need to redefine ourselves internally and relationally. Only then can we recover and expand upon the impulsive, communal, emotional writing of the Declaration of Independence.