Happy Independence Day, America.
Although I hardly think one measly day is nearly enough to thank you for the massive influence you have had over my life, watching from afar and copying your coolness, as so many of us have done and still do, please allow me to try.
Thank you for the Action Force/G.I. Joe figures I played with as a child (and the Star Wars ones I should have kept in their boxes, I now realise); for Walt Disney; for every pair of Levi’s I ever cut; for Dylan, Henley, Morrison, Presley, Sinatra and Jackson; for Brando, Pacino, de Niro and Nicholson; for Freddie Krueger and Leatherface; for Harper Lee and Stephen King; for Microsoft and Apple; for McDonald’s and Pizza Hut; for The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, The Walking Dead, Man v. Food and Most Evil; for Jon Stewart, Bill Hicks and Rich Hall (although my favourite of all your wonderful comedians remains one George W. Bush); for iced tea and peanut butter; for Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Al Gore; for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Paul Robeson; for each and every brave soul, one hundred times over, at D-Day.
For having such a beautiful national anthem which, due to your sporting prowess, we probably hear more than our own. For wishing people you only just met ‘a nice day’, something I think so lovely and often attempt myself, even though I rarely get more than a blank expression in return (at which point I sometimes take it all back and secretly wish them a thoroughly miserable day instead, the ungrateful bastards, something I imagine you don’t do in the USA so please don’t spoil the fantasy). For three of my best friends who shouldn’t appear last on this list, but do and wouldn’t mind one bit.
Yet I really wanted to show appreciation and great, great admiration for three more of your finest citizens. I think you should be proud of them and I believe that history will be kind to them.
First, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.
Whatever you feel about their apparent treason, and the reaction is certainly mixed, their acts of conscience should be an inspiration to everybody. How many of us regularly turn a blind eye to far lesser indiscretions, too fearful of upsetting the apple (pie) cart? It’s a good thing that some of us will not turn away, and what gives me some hope for the future is that these two men are under the age of thirty. I only wish we had whole governments made up of such determined characters who value commitment to truth and decency more highly than a comfortable existence with its associated perks.
Edward Snowden, a former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), proved government violations of the fourth amendment, not to mention a violation of trust between the United States and European Union. Feeling is so strong that there have been calls to grant Snowden refuge in Germany or some other EU country. Clearly a principled young man with an idealistic view of the world, he has given up his somewhat privileged lifestyle in exchange for one where he has to look over his shoulder constantly and fear every knock at the door. Courageous indeed. Nothing too sensitive was leaked, it should be remembered; nothing necessarily unlawful was exposed either. He merely alerted the world to the extent that government agencies secretly trawl through our private data, suggesting mass surveillance on an unparalled scale. I do doubt the wisdom in his choice of safe havens, however.
Bradley Manning leaked classified diplomatic cables (260,000 of them) and video of an air strike that killed 97 civilians, and another of an Apache helicopter attack on unarmed civilians in Baghdad that killed at least 12, including two employees of the Reuters news agency. This young Army private from Oklahoma did not seek to profit from this, and even after three years in prison (some of that time spent in solitary confinement where he has been subjected to treatment you would expect from a totalitarian state) still refuses to lie on the promise of leniency.
The video of the helicopter attack showed that those who tried to rescue the wounded were fired at before a tank drove over one of the dead bodies, cutting it in half – clear proof of war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. Thank God that someone found it too disgraceful to ignore. The legality of the invasion and occupation aside, military personnel are not supposed to target civilians, prevent others from tending to the wounded, nor deface the bodies of the dead. I find it extraordinary that Bradley Manning should find himself in prison for bringing disturbing truths to light when those who have committed such crimes remain free to further fan the flames of extremism. I find it very hard to accept any argument that he put American lives at risk. After all, every needless yet loudly celebrated – it’s caught on camera – civilian death aids the enemy. The shame of this was what he sought to expose.
I hope that one day both these men will be seen as heroes, like that other respected whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, at one time ‘the most dangerous man in America’, who helped bring about the end of the Vietnam War by exposing government lies.
The third great American I wanted to include, also somewhat controversial, is the late Norman Borlaug, from Iowa. Recognised as the ‘father’ of the Green Revolution, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for the incredible humanitarian achievement of sparing an estimated billion lives across Mexico, India and Pakistan, the latter of which had been on the brink of famine, by developing a drought-hardy, high-yield strain of dwarf wheat – in a field, not a lab.
So the argument goes that this was only made possible by hugely increased use of water, pesticides and fertilisers, the full scope of health and environmental side effects of corporate farming are still not known. Questions about how we feed an ever-growing population are at least of equal pertinence today, compounded by the threat of climate change. Borlaug, who for fifty years lived outside the US, was well placed to speak of the outrage that ‘fashionable elitists back home’ could deny those struggling to survive in the Third World all the things that would allow them to become self sufficient.
All are heroes to some, villains and traitors in the eyes of others. They did what they believed was right. Whether we completely agree with their actions or not, whether we ourselves would have done the same, each one truly made a difference and made the public think. Isn’t that all any of us can hope to achieve in our short lifetimes?
I’d love to know what you think of Snowden, Manning and Borlaug, by the way.
Here are 100 Greatest Americans to also consider and appreciate that little bit more today. It’s quite a list.
I leave the final words to the great Mark Twain as we celebrate the land of the free and the home of the (often incredibly) brave:
“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”