Benjamin Franklin, the Bald Eagle, and Head-Shaking Irony

Well, it’s that time of year again when we celebrate our nation’s birthday!

Hip, hip, HOORAY!

This great nation of ours is now 238 years old. That’s a lot of candles.

This great nation of ours, embodied in the symbol of our national bird, the bald eagle.

But our founding fathers did not settle on this bird without some controversy.

Benjamin Franklin, for one, vehemently opposed the proposition of adopting the bird of prey for our national symbol.

Here are his central reasons, composed in a letter in 1784:

A bird “that does not get his Living honestly,” he chastised it for its “bad moral Character.”

But wait, there’s more:

You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [Osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

And still more:

Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.

Summarizing, the bird is dishonest, of bad moral character, as well as a thief and a coward.

Now for the head-shaking irony part and why, according to Franklin’s own reasoning, the Bald Eagle is the perfect symbol for America.

Isn’t this exactly what the founding colonists did?

They came over, started small, and pushed a great many people off their lands, if not straight out killed them. Out of concern for the Native Peoples, they would eventually give them blankets. Oh, yeah, they purposefully infected them with smallpox too.

They gave them treaties to sign and, I am oh so sure, explained honestly what those unintelligible written words said.

And of those “legitimate treaties?” They broke them.

There were those times when entire Native tribes declared peace and support of the American scourge as it moved west. They had American flags sewn into their clothing, pledging their truce. What did the armies do? They shot them, shot women and children in the back by hundreds. And they hunted them down to do so.

They put bounties on their heads; that’s right, you could make a good living killing Natives. (Ah, capitalism).

They would strip them of their language, their ways of life, their culture.

Entire nations of people, wiped from beautiful land, a land that was once theirs.

Of course I could go on.

How’s that for honesty and moral character?

America: a nation built on thievery, deceit, murder, and genocide.

Let us look at the present state of just one of these peoples, the Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A few quotes from Re-Member, a non-profit organization on the reservation itself:

-From 1980 to 2000, the counties that make up Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota comprised the poorest of our nation’s 3,143 counties. The 2000 census found them the third poorest, not because things got better on Pine Ridge, but because things got worse on two other South Dakota Indian Reservations.

-Tribal Government records show 38,000 enrolled members living on Pine Ridge Reservation…The poverty on Pine Ridge can be described in no other terms than third world…Many homes are without running water, and without sewer.

-Unemployment rate of 80-90%

-Per capita income of $4,000

-8 Times the United States rate of diabetes

-5 Times the United States rate of cervical cancer

-Twice the rate of heart disease

-8 Times the United States rate of Tuberculosis

-Alcoholism rate estimated as high as 80%

-1 in 4 infants born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects

-Suicide rate more than twice the national rate

-Teen suicide rate 4 times the national rate

-Infant mortality is three times the national rate

-Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only Haiti has a lower rate.

So let us enjoy our barbecues, our beers, our picnics and days on the water, our friends, and family and our fireworks (oh, and by the way, the Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular costs nearly 6 million dollars, or 1,500 x the per capita income on Pine Ridge) as nearly 40,000 people on just one reservation continue to suffer in ways that exceed most of our understanding.

And that is why, Mr. Benjamin Franklin, the Bald Eagle as you defined it, is the perfect symbol for our great country.





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