It's July 4th.
My earliest memory of Independence Day was, of course, fireworks. High above the Croton River, unbelievably loud and magnificent, they exploded beautifully. Each 4th, my father wore a police uniform. A decorated U.S. Marine pilot during WWII, he was a volunteer auxiliary cop. He directed traffic to and from the fireworks.
I grew to admire the courage and imagination of our “Founding Fathers,” and our country's uniqueness. To build a country in wilderness, in the 17th Century . . . to distill 18th Century notions of human rights into a new nation dedicated to liberty, equality, with decisions made by men, not by kings or priests, was wonderful. After leading a rebellious army to independence, George Washington twice walked away from the near-absolute power other such figures have conistently taken or accepted. What a tragic irony that they couldn't solve slavery!
As a kid I was more concerned with baseball. Brooklyn-born, I rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When I was nine, “dem Bums” won their first World Series, over the “classier” New York Yankees, with Jackie Robinson still a key player. My own life already mirrored the integration they symbolized: my Cub Scout den included several Jews and a couple of black boys. Maybe that made it easy for me to volunteer as a civil rights worker at seventeen. And to see clearly the ugliness of U.S. racism.
I'd previously assumed our country was like Gary Cooper in High Noon: not greedy nor avaricious nor aggressive; but when pushed to the edge, as by Japan and the Nazis just before my birth, brave and dogged in fighting for what's right. Fighting for human freedoms, liberty of thought, and equal opportunity.
We strayed far from those ideals often during the 20th Century. In many countries, mostly inhabited by non-Europeans, we stood against freedom in favor of dictators or oligarchs whose support we found politically convenient. I came to manhood in the midst of one of the worst of those strayings. Without judging others' choices, based on what they knew or felt at the time, I could express my deep love of this country only by shouting out against that war, as I would later show my love for my father by watching his driving carefully and alerting him to dangers. (Again, I do not judge others; nor do I belittle the courage of many who fought in that war, the true comradeship soldiers experienced, or the sufferings of many. I just can't celebrate the cynical politicians who sent them.)
Love is complex. Marital love, familial love, love of country. Anyone for whom patriotism is a simple matter, bereft of consideration or challenges, isn't paying attention – or is abusing the idea of patriotism by screaming “I love my country!” for not-so-patriotic reasons.
Setting off fireworks may be fun, but doesn't begin to celebrate what's great about our country. Contemplating the courage and intellectual range of our ancestors comes closer. So would emulating them. Just as showing up in church is not a true celebration of Jesus if one spends most of one's time being cruel to others, pledging allegiance or standing for the national anthem is a far less meaningful form of patriotism than trying, as our forefathers did, to assess with an independent mind (not by listening to king, bishop, or Rush) how our nation might best steer its complex course through a difficult world. Speaking up honestly, as they did, without concern for personal consequences. Taking risks for freedom – our own and others'.
The true celebration would be working to extend the theoretical freedoms they articulated to all.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, 9 July 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG's website. KRWG will also air a spoken version several times during the week.]
[In different moods, if I read the foregoing column I'd disagree with its emphasis in different ways. Some folks will be angry that a 4th of July column praising our founders could also contain criticism of our beloved country. Others -- echoing that wonderful line of W.E.B. DuBois's, "What does your Independence Day mean to a slave?" -- will list our national sins and ask how a thoughtful modern citizen can praise the U.S. at all. Still others will share love of and respect for our political system but be unable to express those right now because of the results of the 2016 Presidential election. And I'll admit to concern about whether our system will survive the combination of our Supreme Court's decisions helping money control our politics, the well-organized far right making energetic use of those decisions, hacking and other interference in our elections, and the huge power of multi-national corporations. There's a lot very wrong with our system right now. (Some of that fueled the anger of some Trump voters, although they were saddled with a self-destructive option for expressing it.)
Our democracy is gravely ill. I don't say that merely because we elected a dangerous clown last fall. We've not always chosen wisely -- or always been offered a meaningful choice by our political parties. Trump is dangerous, in himself and in the ease with which more smarter and more vicious "advisors" can manipulate him; but he's more a symptom than a cause. Well before Trump, George Bush was a totally unqualified individual, though quite possibly a much better human being than he might have been, and we got saddled with more wars and less financial solvency than we might have had without him. In Barack Obama, though he was far from a perfect president, we kind of got lucky. He was judicious, thoughtful, intelligent, and a good human being, who tried to find the best course for our country, not for one segment of it, and often succeeded. He dealt fairly effectively with some very difficult challenges. But we elected him because he spoke so well and seemed so lively and fresh, and because his opponents seemed tired and old-style. (Similarly we chose Jack Kennedy over Richard Nixon, by a very slim margin, because he was so much more personable and telegenic. The second Bush seemed more personable, more candid, more at ease in his own skin than Al Gore.) We kind of got lucky with Obama. With Trump we didn't.
I hope we will pull through. But the huge faults in our current decision-making process present a hell of a challenge.]
[Note: another local columnist wrote this week that this country's success was due solely "the wisdom of the Founders, the spark of liberty along with free-market principles . . ." and that no country had "done so much good with [its wealth] around the world." Those are the sorts of half-truths that function like clouds obscuring the moon, preventing us from getting a clear look at what's great about our country and what isn't. Yes, our Founders were wise, inventive, and courageous. But free enterprise existed long before our country did. Freedoms of speech and our other freedoms were a great innovation, and helped our rise as a nation. On the other hand, our vast natural resources helped. Too, the period of our great ascendance to the primo position among nations, the 20th Century, coincided with two great wars and a lot of destruction and dislocation throughout Europe, while we sat safely an ocean away. Yes, our clever means of distributing goods were a major factor in our economic success; but these were nothing our Founders contemplated; nor could they have easily conceived the 20th Century world in which these things occurred. Being able to sell to both sides during most of World War I and during several years of World War II before our own involvement probably helped, as did residing and producing products a safe distance from anyone's bombers. Our huge population also helped us become the deciding factor in those two wars.
Let's respect our founders. They greatly deserve it. But let's also try to see clearly.]