Understanding liberty and justice for all

Published: 8/14/2019 7:54:04 AM

The “Almanac” supplement to the Greenfield Recorder (July 31), describes Greenfield’s first settlers as “stout-hearted, valiant people who endured great hardships, attacks by Indians and terrible massacres in both 1675 and 1764, during the King Philip’s and French and Indian Wars.” But who were the inhabitants and who were the invaders? The word “endured” obscures the moral complexity of the process of settlement, and leaves the impression that these white settlers were merely passive victims.

I know this Almanac is intended partly to attract interest in — and perhaps visitors to — our towns, but as someone who has recently chosen to live here after 14 years in Beirut teaching Arabs about America, I am struck by the continued glorification of white settlers and the assumption that they are the legitimate inhabitants of this land. As our current president puts it, others should go back to where they came from — apparently, even if they were here first. This is a valley that prides itself on its progressivism, and that is one of the most attractive things about living, working, learning, or visiting here. Yet, like the USA more generally, the problematic basis upon which our society has been built often remains unexamined. In fact, these settlers were the cutting edge of the British Empire, but unlike the situation in some other parts of the empire — like India and Malaysia — these settlers never went back home. Instead they became settler colonialists.

There are certainly ideals of our society worth celebrating, embodied in such phrases as “all men are created equal,” and “liberty and justice for all.” Unfortunately, these ideals have rarely been applied to non-whites, even to this day. The notion that whites are the “original” legitimate inhabitants is an unquestioned fiction.

This issue is not unrelated to current worldwide controversies about refugees and immigrants arriving at borders. A growing number of authoritarian nationalist leaders depict these people as threats to “native” inhabitants. In the USA, the basic question is whether these people should be incorporated into our society or turned away. The difference between these often desperate people and settler colonialists like those who came to Greenfield, is that the former seek to integrate into the existing society while the later have no such desire: instead they wish to displace the current inhabitants, a plan often justified through some hierarchical notion of cultural superiority.

Perhaps the most problematic and revealing case is that of the State of Israel. Desperate escapees from Nazi Europe certainly needed refuge. It is to the enduring shame of the USA that it rejected some of these European Jews who were sent back to face the horrors of Hitler’s “final solution.” But Zionism — the ideology that sought to recreate a State of Israel nearly 2,000 years after the Roman Empire crushed it, had no place for the actual people living in this densely populated place. It did not ask for Jewish refugees to be incorporated into the existing multi-religious Arab society. Rather it sought a separate state for one distinct group. The Arabs were forced to either integrate into Israel’s society or accept displacement. South Africa, Australia, and Canada are similar examples where settlers who took control through superior power became justified and naturalized as the legitimate natives.

Americans today cannot undo these injustices, but by gaining a clearer perspective about the basis of our own society, we might begin to understand what true liberty and justice for all might mean.

Patrick McGreevy is a resident of Greenfield.

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