Text Messages | Just do human rights

As written in the Declaration of Independence, all Americans are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (and the right not to sport the old US flag of slavers and white supremacists on their sneakers).

“Just Do It” goes the slogan of sportswear maker Nike. And, true to that spirit – as much must-do as can-do – the company produced a new brand of sneaker, the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July, to celebrate Independence Day on 4 July in the United States, and to be launched on that day this year.

So far, so good if you are in the market to gain from expedience, chauvinism and “patriotism”. Except that Nike chose to inset on the backs of the sneakers an extremely old version of the US flag. Indeed, a flag representing the US even before it was an independent country, though when it was a mutual-purpose entity comprised of the 13 states that waged the War of Independence against British rule.

The Nike geniuses had come up with nothing other than the so-called Betsy Ross flag, with its circle of 13 white stars on blue in the top left corner, offset by red and white stripes. A piece of American history? Yes. A symbol of the American Revolution? Yes. 

But the Betsy Ross – and this shows the value of dealing with history properly rather than selectively – also became the symbol of the American Nazi Party. It fell to one of the faces of Nike, product endorser and ex-gridiron player Colin Kaepernick, to point this out to the company about the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July sneakers. (Further objections could be raised to the name’s grandiosity and counterintuitive ponderousness.)

Kaepernick was the National Football League quarterback who began the protest mode of kneeling during pre-game renditions of the US national anthem, in a dignified but overt comment on police prejudice and violence towards African-Americans. Faced by its own historical howler and by one of the icons from its 30th anniversary campaign in 2018, Nike just did it, cancelling the release of the shoes. 

This could be one of the most notable product recalls, but how can the company have been unaware of the appropriation of the Betsy Ross by white supremacists and ultra-nationalists in the US today?


The Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross could not have imagined in 1776 that her making a stars-and-stripes flag would make for such reverberations 243 years later. Nor, perhaps, can the makers of the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 have conceived how their document would have startling, tragic echoes in these days of migrants dying on US borders. 

Before Thomas Jefferson’s famously ringing opening sentences of the Declaration is a signifier of the declarants: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America”. And then there is the first line of the second paragraph, much quoted and yet more honoured in its breaching than its upholding:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

This is one of those classic and sadly countless instances in which the creators and propagators of an idea have themselves in mind rather than “all Men”. The man who wrote the Declaration and the men who later wrote the Constitution of the United States so believed in the equality of all men that they were slave owners.

They so believed in “unalienable Rights” that they extended these only to white men to lord it over others, among them men, women and children ripped from their homelands in Africa, transported by ship across the Atlantic Ocean and thrown out on the other side to work and die as slaves but not to have “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. 

Selective agents

The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are venerated as documents of enlightenment and harbingers of liberty, but they are selective agents, acting in the cause only of those wielding the power, the money and the gun. They are like much-lauded Athenian democracy: wonderful as long as you are an Athenian man and not an Athenian woman or a foreigner or a slave.

Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration but it was the Norfolk-born Thomas Paine (1737-1809) who arguably most influenced it rather than the Jefferson-George Washington coterie of American revolutionary leaders. Paine observed, thought and wrote about both the American and French revolutions. He had fled the uncongenial monarchical environment of his motherland in 1774, settling in America. Within two years, he helped transform the nature of the struggle against the English crown.

Henry Collins, in his introduction to the Pelican Classics edition (1969) of Paine’s Rights of Man (Part 1, 1791 and Part 2, 1792), writes: “His [Paine’s] pamphlet Common Sense, which struck Philadelphia like a rocket on 10 January 1776, was phenomenal in content, style and impact. For the first time a complete philosophy of the American revolution was put explicitly and in compelling prose in front of the still bewildered colonists who were fighting stubbornly for a cause they only dimly understood … 

“Its immediate impact was tremendous with sales of well over a hundred thousand. By February 1776 it was in its third edition and at the end of March George Washington wrote to Colonel Read: ‘I find that Common Sense is working a powerful change here in the minds of many men.’ The Declaration of Independence, which appeared on 4 July, was written by Thomas Jefferson, but it conveyed, in thought and style, the indelible imprint of Common Sense.”

On this Fourth of July, one can but hope that common sense of the highest order will win out and that the US begins to treats migrants as people who are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Just do it.

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