Fourth of July sparks American values debate
As revelers celebrate the nation's birthday, commentators debate what it means to be an American.
Boston – As the United States celebrates its 231st birthday, Americans and Brits alike are assessing the American values that the holiday commemorates. This year, Independence Day comes at a challenging time for a nation that is weary of a four-year-old war, faces a number of civil rights questions, and has fallen in stature around the world.
An editorial in The New York Times posits that though the Fourth of July is a local, American holiday, the value it stands for – freedom – is universal. The writer argues that freedom is a fundamental aspect of human nature, but he argues that "what matters as much as the principle of freedom is the practice of it." Given recent events in the US, he wonders if "whether, by who we are and how we behave, we can make the freedom that animates us compelling to others."
The country looks inward on the Fourth of July – not in introspection, but in an easy, comfortable sense of historical gratification. Yet this is a good day to look outward as well.
It is a day to ask how good a job – from the world's perspective – we are doing living up to the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, whether we have done enough to make those sonorous old rights seem like more than a limited case in a limited argument. The answer is more equivocal than we like to believe. But the ideal is one that must drive us all.
While many Americans fondly recall the Declaration of Independence on this holiday, an editorial writer for The Washington Post looks beyond the oft-cited preamble to some of the less frequently noted grievances listed by the rebellious colonists. "At times it reads like the complaint of a good-government organization rather than an indictment of a bloody-minded tyrant," says the writer. Still, the writer believes that the document's core values represent the American experience.
Fortunately, few schoolchildren memorize any of this list, and few Americans, young or old, are even aware of it. The nation's first founding document is remembered not for resentment, fears and ancient grudges but for the promise of opportunity and the guarantee of liberty. Its opening chords and its concluding pledge are still what bring people flowing into this country by the hundreds of thousands every year.
Though one editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times says America has much to "bemoan" right now, the presidential race offers jaded Americans a glimmer of hope.
The campaign to succeed President Bush offers a hint of what sustains this nation: Whatever else one may think about the candidates, one cannot deny that they reflect a vigorous, disputatious and diverse society.
On the Democratic side, the leading candidates include a woman, a black man and a Latino, along with the requisite run of white guys. They include relative neophytes and seasoned veterans, and they range in age from middle years to near-senior citizen: Barack Obama is not yet 50; Hilary Clinton is approaching 60; Joe Biden's coming up on 65. The Republicans, admittedly, are more monochromatic and male, but the front-runners include a Roman Catholic, an Episcopalian and a Mormon. And what the Republicans lack in range on gender and ethnicity, they partly make up for in background. There's a lawyer-turned-senator-turned actor, a mayor, some governors — granted, not the full range of American experience, but compared to the Democrats' senator-heavy options, a reasonably full slate.
Amid the nation's challenges, many regular Americans with no direct connection to the country's wars or other political debates have struggled to understand their role and how to behave. In a letter to Southern California's Orange County Register, Warren Emens describes the difficulty of staying responsibly engaged and involved while trying to lead a normal life.
One day we read the papers or watch the news, but on another we choose entertainment over reality. We are aware of the war, but not personally involved through a loved one or close friend; we find it too easy to tune out. We might choose to secularize the day as we do on other holidays where our divergent beliefs encourage us to find and share the one thing we have in common, the desire to have a good time.
In this way we find relief from the stress of considering the great sacrifice by so many who continue to fight to maintain our freedom. This year the news is more difficult to tune out. We will have our barbecue and will celebrate with red, white and blue, but we choose also to remember the price we continue to pay for our freedom and the true meaning of Independence Day.
Overseas, many have taken the American holiday as an opportunity to voice their concerns about the direction the US has taken in recent years. In the England's Guardian newspaper, columnist Ian Williams argues that US President George W. Bush has committed many of the same wrongs that the American Founding Fathers accused King George III of inflicting on the American colonies. Searching for a solution, he says that Britain would likely reject any offer from the US to rejoin. Canada may, however, be more willing to adopt the wayward nation and repair many of its errant policies, argues Mr. Williams.
Early on the morning that ... John Kerry conceded the 2004 election, I was punditting on CNN. Confronted with a map showing how the states had voted, it just came out: "Look at the map, it's time to secede from the Union. Join Canada! Get free healthcare, reduce the murder rate - and get out of Iraq - all in one move."
Liberal Canadian bilingualism could expand to allow ... you not to say "oot and aboot," if it offends your linguistic sensibilities.
Americans would also get a constitutional monarchy at one remove, that they do not have to pay for, and unlimited royal gossip that is slightly more upmarket than Paris Hilton's escapades but occasionally every bit as salacious. They would also get a charter of human rights that is taken seriously - as opposed to a constitution that the supreme court reinterprets in Rancher George's favour.
In an article examining the state of Bush's presidency on the nation's birthday, the British Independent reports that among other things, Bush's Iraq policy, recent commutation of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's prison sentence, and failed immigration bill have "sealed his status as the lamest of lame ducks."
For Americans, the 4th of July is a time for celebration. For George Bush however, today's Independence Day holiday is another date in the calendar of an imploding presidency without parallel in recent history.
With public dissatisfaction over Iraq continuing to grow, and the "right track, wrong track" barometer showing an unprecedented 74 per cent of Americans convinced the country is heading in the wrong direction, Mr Bush will probably remain deeply unpopular for the 18 months remaining until he leaves office in January 2009.
Still, for many the holiday remains a reminder of the opportunities the nation's founders hoped to create. In Chicago Jorge Arceo, a Mexican restaurant owner, told a Chicago Tribune reporter that Independence Day had a "special meaning" for him and his family.
"It's special because my wife who is from Mexico will soon be taking her test to become an American citizen," he said as he watched the fireworks with his wife, Analine, 31; his two sons, Jorge, 5, and Joshua, 2; and about a dozen friends and other family members. "My wife is out here celebrating being an American just like everyone else."