I write this on a hot, beautiful July day just before the Fourth of July. I have returned to St Paul from the woods and lakes of northern Wisconsin where small towns were gearing up to celebrate the once “Glorious Fourth.” American flags were flying on lamp posts, hand-lettered signs were up for Fourth of July picnics and ball games, fireworks were for sale everywhere.
So what is it about the Fourth of July these days? Anything of note or just food and music on Harriet Island as a day of patriotic reflection gets commodified into passive-aggressive consumerism?
We used to have fireworks over our Capitol in St Paul. Then I could bring my kids to sit on the grass and look up at the lit Capitol dome and tell them about their ancestors who fought in many wars for their country and talk about the Declaration of Independence and its promise for them, too. I didn’t have to pay an admission charge to get emotional over being an American.
So what? Hasn’t recalling the birth of Jesus also gone rather commercial these days for so many of us? Aren’t we having fun with all our shopping and our spending and our debts? After all, doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say something about seeking “happiness” as the meaning of life? If you can buy it, why not want it? Does that apply to patriotism, too?
Actually, I would say that these are not happy times for Americans; spiritually, they are trying times, and so, to me, the Fourth should be used to bring us back to the character we need now to make the best of hard times and to build a better future — that perennial seed corn ever renewing the American experiment.
We have become an annoying people, I think: too whiney, self-centered, afraid and overweight. Our complaints are many; our efforts scattershot; our best thoughts mostly for ourselves and not for others, or for the country.
To many Americans, patriotism seems as some musty emotion marginalized into a jingoism tinged with back-country “put-up-your-dukes” arrogance.
I am sorry for this as I still have my yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag, which now I am reluctant to fly for fear of giving offence or creating misunderstandings about my love of country.
We have not yet recovered from an economic calamity brought on by the short-sightedness of our most highly paid professionals — bankers, brokers, lawyers, accountants. Main Street got hosed by Wall Street. Wall Street died in the process but Main Street through its taxes had to bail out survivable parts of Wall Street to keep the country afloat.
And Wall Street has yet to say, “Thank you.” And many of us are pissed at this betrayal of basic standards of responsibility on the part of those with wealth and power.
Government steps in to plug the holes in our economic dikes to get us through the crisis until better times arrive. But we can’t plug a hole in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. The economic seems stuck in limbo: no recession but no recovery.
Our debts grow and grow.
China is on the rise in a big way; we pay interest on our debt to them and those payments finance their growing military machine. Mexico can’t eradicate the criminal syndicates that are financed by selling drugs to us and buy the weapons that Americans sell them. Iraq is still a mess; it’s unclear that we know how to help the Afghans build a viable state. Israel seems intent on fighting Palestinians forever. Wars go on. We can’t end them.
Minnesota, like most states, confronts a terrible financial crunch. Either taxes will go way up or budgets will get cut way back, or we must endure more than a little of both extremes.
We have given up looking for leaders and this resignation adds to our sense that the future will most likely be unkind. Even our leaders have given up being leaders. Everyone tends to hunker down and await events, to minimize personal risks.
Well, things did not look so rosy after our Independence was declared on July 4, 1776, either. The British Army was better than ours and Washington suffered defeat after defeat.
Back then, Tom Paine wrote in The Crisis:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldiers and the sunshine patriots will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and women. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
An Englishman in the American colonies, Paine concluded his long essay: “… I shall always feel an honest pride at the part I have taken and acted, and a gratitude to nature and providence for putting it in my power to be of some use to mankind.”
It was John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address who echoed these sentiments to those Americans who remember that snowy day in Washington and are still alive: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country.”
What could this mean for us today on July 4, 2010?
I suggest we start with our core values: those put into the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of our independence as a nation. Most important to me are the words “We hold these truths to be self evident.”
America is a country of individuals who make a leap of faith to “hold” certain ideals as true for all times and all places. Americans are therefore individuals from any and all backgrounds, races, creeds, ethnicities, who “hold” certain ideals. We are a nation of idealists first and foremost.
In 2008 when the American people elected Barack Obama to be their president, they finally made good on one of these ideals — that of all people being created equal. The shame, the stigma, the evil of slavery and racial segregation was thus transcended in a significant way.
But ideals don’t come for free; they are not facts on the ground. They can never be taken for granted. They are dear as Tom Paine told us because they don’t just happen; they have to be made to happen. That difficulty of living up to ideals gives them value.
Our vocation as Americans, the honor of our calling as still a pilgrim people, is to get ever closer to those ideals. Being an American is a burden and a responsibility; it is not an indulgence, a whim or a fixation on the self.
Our individualism is also communal. We surrender some of our selfishness to work together in community to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” as the Constitution provides.
So as we in Minnesota cast our votes for a governor and both houses of our State Legislature in the coming months and give our support to one or another plan to restore fiscal realism in our public affairs, let us resolve to act as Americans: to each shoulder as best we can in our own separate ways the burden of responsibility for improving the common good.
It was once said of Americans that “the difficult they do at once; the impossible takes them a little longer.”
Are we Minnesotans still that kind of American?
America! America! God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!