BDS: As American As Apple Pie

First published on Huffington Post, Aug 14, 2016

For the last two years, while writing Liberty Landing, my social novel about the American experience that was inspired by John Dos Passos’ U.S.A., I have been steeped in the history of America’s founding and the American Revolution. As a third culture immigrant with an early formative education emphasizing British, Asian, and world history, with a lesser focus on American history, considering the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution through a polycultural lens has been an endeavor in refraction. My illations and realizations are oblique — propagated waves changing direction because of the very nature of the transmission.

In studying the canon of American history and historiography, surveying source documents and museum artifact collections, and divining like the runes the work of brilliant historians and chroniclers of history, I learned some things profound and true about oppression and sufferance, recognition and awakening, denial and accommodation, mass hallucination and epiphany, communal ideals and foundational values, stirrings and beginnings, courage and commitment, and sacrificing the self in service of a larger cause.

In reading about the dynamic political resistance movement that took place on the eve of the American Revolution—the mass mobilization of the colonists, the stitching together of individuals and communities so different from each other into the fabric of a “people”; the invention of a country first in the imagination and then manifested in the outer world; and the inexorable march to independence—I could not help but think of Seamus Heaney’s play, The Cure of Troy:

History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

Historical memory is a wonderful thing. It allows us to remember who we were before we became who we are. During a panel discussion on the American Experiment, I asked a filmmaker, musician, and academic about his reasons for emigrating to the US and not to some other country. After a long moment of considered thought, he replied, “I wanted to be in a country that had an idea about itself. I wanted the freedom to chase my rainbows, to be allowed to rise on my own merits, to invent myself, to be treated fairly without anyone usurping my rights, and to find happiness.” Et voila!, I thought, that belongs in my novel.

Hillary Clinton’s July 2 letter to one of her major donors and fundraisers about BDS, the Palestinian Boycott Sanctions and Divestment movement, got me thinking about historical memory, national biography, and what happens when we forget who we were and who we are.
In the missive to the mega donor, Clinton stated her “alarm” over BDS, a non-violent, peaceful mobilization effort for the Palestinian cause that has gained support from people and institutions of goodwill and conscience around the world. She sought advice from him “on how we can work together to counter the BDS movement.” Clinton stressed the need for “information and advocacy and to fight back against further attempts to delegitimize Israel.” “From Congress and state legislature to boardrooms and classrooms, we need to engage all people of good faith in order to explain why the BDS campaign is counterproductive to the pursuit of peace and harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike,” she wrote.

The BDS movement was launched in July 2005 precisely because the pursuit of peace, that Clinton puts so much faith in, has failed the Palestinians at every turn for six decades. In their opening call for BDS, the founders and representatives of the movement appealed for help from people of conscience in the international community “who have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice.”

The BDS movement is frequently compared to the thirty-year international boycott, sanctions and divestment campaign against South Africa’s Apartheid regime that ended in the nineties. Indeed, the South African model of political resistance that was instrumental in ending Apartheid and ushering in a multi-ethnic government led by President Nelson Mandela was the inspiration for BDS Palestine. It is however, in my view, more accurate to view the Palestinian BDS movement as a 21st century iteration of America’s first, feisty, radical assertions of independence and protests against a mighty occupying force.

 T. H. Breen in his sterling book, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence, examines how the colonists, separated from each other and with no common or unifying bonds, “came to the striking conclusion that it was preferable to risk their lives and property ... than to endure further political oppression.” This moment of human agency determining that “hope and history rhymed” was a seminal moment that required strategic mass mobilization.

The colonists settled on a method they had refined over a decade—the boycott of imported British goods. “Before this moment, no massive political movement had organized itself around the denial of imported goods ... the consumer boycott was a brilliantly original American invention,” Breen writes. Consumer boycotts swept through the continent like a tidal wave. Organizers in settlements drew up non-importation agreements and subscription lists across the land to allow people to declare their support for the boycott of British goods.

The individual declarations for boycott and pledges to support non-importation were not for the fainthearted or the fence-straddlers. By signing the lists and sheets, people declared their support publicly—boldly—for the boycott of goods from the mighty British Empire. The sheets were posted in places were people congregated and distinguished patriot from loyalist. The boycotts served to weave the people into one and assume for the first time a national identity.

This early form of American political resistance was truly democratic. It invited and admitted-for the first time-women and the poor to political life, to pledge their dedication to the cause, and to participate in the boycotts. “Over a decade of ever more serious confrontations with Parliament, the boycott had become the distinguishing mark of the colonial protest, what cultural anthropologists would call its signature,” Breen writes.

In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act that levied taxes on printed matters in the colonies, everything from legal documents to playing cards. Patrick Henry went ballistic in the House of Burgesses over the taxes. Though called a traitor by some (a hurled grenade akin to calling all BDS supporters anti-Semitic), Henry’s heated oratory moved Thomas Jefferson to praise the Homeric qualities of the speech. George Washington, blood boiling from a list of humiliations doled out to him by the British, including the denial of a much desired royal commission, wrote to a compatriot that there was a slowly gaining recognition among colonists that they could boycott luxury British imports and replace them with domestic products. On one occasion, Washington, Jefferson, and George Mason walked out the House of Burgesses, reassembled at a nearby tavern in Williamsburg, and signed their names to a list renouncing British imported goods.

Concerned by the unrest, the British House of Commons assembled a committee and summoned our man in London, Ben Franklin, to interrogate him about the boycotts. During the grueling interview, Franklin gave what appeared to be his seal of approval to the resistance. “You will find, that if the act is not repealed, they will take very little of your manufactures in a short time ... I do not know a single article imported into the Northern Colonies, but what they can either do without, or make themselves.”

In 1767, Britain enacted another taxation folly, the Townshend Acts, levying taxes against glass, lead, tea, and paper among other products. In order to prevent fraud, the Townshend Act allowed: “his Majesty’s customs to take a constable, headborough, or other public officer inhabiting near unto the place, and in the daytime to enter and go into any house, shop cellar, warehouse, or room or other place and, in case of resistance, to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other pakage there, to seize, and from thence to bring, any kind of goods or merchandise whatsoever prohibited or uncustomed, and to put and secure the same in his Majesty’s storehouse next to the place where such seizure shall be made.”

And what did the colonists do? They went thermonuclear. Powerless, loathing the principle of taxation without representation, they decided to protest in the only manner available to them—boycotts. On October 28, 1767, a group gathered at Faneuil Hall in Boston to discuss the unjust taxes and to formulate a proper response in protest. They drew up “subscription sheets” to boycott imported British goods. The boycott included a whole array of British imports: “loaf sugar, anchors, womens hats, men and womens apparel ready-made, household furniture, Gloves, Men and Womens shoes, snuff, mustard, muffs, furrs, tippets, clocks and watches, anchors, fire engines, China ware, and British made Broad cloths.”

In 2013, the Houghton Library at Harvard University discovered eight of the subscription sheets, signed by 650 people—among them, Boston’s Revolutionary era figure, Paul Revere. The sheets list a number of women signatories; those who could not write placed an X next to their recorded names.
The boycott’s leaders called on people to uphold the boycott even at the cost of inconvenience and pain: “... we further agree strictly to adhere to the late Regulation respecting Funerals, and will not use any Gloves but what are Manufactured here, nor procure any new Garments upon such an Occasion, but what is absolutely necessary.”

What the colonists did to achieve independence and freedom was staggering and monumental. “Within the framework of the new consumer market, Americans worked out a genuinely radical political ideology, and achievement for which they seldom receive credit. They managed to situate a complex discourse about rights and liberties, virtue and power, within a familiar material culture,” Breen writes.

Luckily for America, the colonists didn’t wait for a peace process. Luckily for America, the colonists didn’t decide, like Hillary Clinton, that boycotts were an improper course of action to end oppression or to win the right to freedom and self-determination. Luckily for America, the colonists didn’t wait for ideal conditions sometime in the distant future when Great Britain might have deemed it an appropriate time to consider releasing America from its imperial portfolio. The colonists must have known what history has proven—that no colonizer or occupier has ever surrendered a colony or released an occupied people under its control willingly.

In condemning the Palestinian BDS movement, a legitimate political resistance movement representing a people with established rights under international law and universal principles of human rights, who have been waiting for sixty seven years for the world to be fair with them, and who are seeking the same self-evident truths and inalienable rights expressed in the majestic and magisterial Declaration of Independence, Hillary Clinton places herself not only on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of American history.


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