When I was a child, our parents would load my sisters and me into the back seat of our maroon, 1945 Hudson sedan and drive to Langdon to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. The fireworks displays in those days were a big deal, no little bursts of light from tiny bottle rockets. Huge fountains of phosphorescent color lit the night sky. The grand finale was usually a huge flag of sparkling red, white, and blue.
Independence Day sometimes meant family reunions, picnics, or one of our rare trips to a lake. We got a fresh supply of caps for our caps guns, and we would be allowed to light sparklers. From a child’s point of view, the Fourth of July was a big event.
I don’t get as excited about fireworks anymore. They don’t compare to the ones I remember. Cap guns and sparklers don’t appeal to the adult who will inevitably be called on for first aid. Parades and picnics aren’t as common, as long or as interesting as they once were.
Most nations have a holiday on which their citizens express their national pride. Canadians celebrate Canada Day. Mexicans celebrate their Independence Day in September. Norwegians celebrate the Syttende Mai to commemorate the signing of the Norwegian constitution. Every nation’s citizens celebrate their national pride.
If you polled Americans along any parade route in the US about why they are celebrating, the responses might include “the land of opportunity,” “freedom,” “liberty,” “equality.” We often call our country “the greatest” on earth. Images of the Liberty Bell, the flag, and the Statue of Liberty are synonymous with our pride.
Our country, in reality, is a country of contradictions.
On one hand we boast of our religious freedom, but religious discrimination continues. There are calls to restrict visits and immigration of people from predominantly Muslim countries. Violence is perpetrated against Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and others. We seem to want the freedom to practice religion unfettered…as long as it’s ours.
We proudly point to the examples of people who have risen from poverty to positions of power and wealth, but the economic disparity between the rich and the poor has increased beyond historic proportions.
We talk of equality, but white supremacist organizations are resurfacing and are once again in the news. Studies show that African Americans have poorer health care, worse education, higher rates of incarceration, and are much more likely to be profiled by law enforcement than white Americans. Native Americans, according to researchers on the subject, have the worst health care of anyone.
Many of us can quote the poetry engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Most of us are descendants of immigrants, yet we have not found a solution which makes our current immigration system more humane and fairer. Instead we debate building higher, longer walls to keep others out.
We pride ourselves on our high moral standards. We see ourselves as setting the standard for world citizenship. Yet, we continue to debate the legality of torture in spite of its proven ineffectiveness. We brag about being peace makers, but refuse to sign nuclear proliferation treaties and bans on the use of mines and cluster bombs. Our leaders propose adding to our military spending even though our budget for war is already twice that of any other nation.
Life is full of contradictions. We are patriotic, proud Americans, but we cynically call politicians “crooks”. We boast of our democratic system, but sneer at the work of government. A wise friend of mine, who was a political scientist, said that those elected to government will only be as moral and ethical as the people who elect them. He also reminded us that the absence of government is not freedom. It is anarchy.
Edward R. Murrow, one of the greatest journalists of the Twentieth Century, once said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.” Criticism is less dangerous than cynicism and complacency.
Democracy only works if citizens are actively involved. It takes hard work to make sure we live up to what we say our country stands for. It takes more than raising a flag on a flagpole and lighting fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains