Happy [Less Than] Independence Day

On this day, July 4, 2013, the day of annual celebration of our forefathers’ declaration of freedom over oppression, and equality for all, all across the United States of America those who care to are putting aside their beers and barbeques for a few moments so that they may reflect on the larger celebration before us, that in our nation’s 237th year the guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness Americans recognized in 1776 “to be self-evident” endure: that still, today, our lives are endowed by our “Creator.”

And yet, sized up not under the laws of God, but critically, those of man, how do freedom and equality for all fare now in America? And what of those guarantees? Self-evident in concept, sure. But does the test of self-evidence hold up also in practice? In short: Do we Americans really have much to celebrate today?

Before anyone answers, it would be prudent for those who wrap themselves in America’s great mourning cloaks — shame and denial — to untie their barbeque aprons and refasten them, tightly, around their eyes; because for an increasing number of Americans, blindness seems vastly preferred over recognition — and for just as many, or more, far more palatable this day than burgers is bigotry.

Just ask the targets of their timeless prejudice: minorities. Ask the African American citizen whom, 237 years after slaveholder Thomas Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal,” millions of fellow Americans still demean, dismiss, and bully. Ask the gay citizen who, in addition to having to confront bigotry, had to wage a many-years-long struggle to finally enjoy the same “inalienable right” to marriage as his heterosexual friends. Ask the Hispanic, Muslim, and other “alien” citizens, whom fellow Americans regularly detain, based primarily on looks alone, for proof of legitimacy. Ask the elder citizen who, if he is living out his last days in an elder-care home, currently has a 30% chance of being neglected or abused.1 Ask the Veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan War to whom, ever since his return to the Land of Opportunity, fellow Americans have yet to proffer gainful employment, let alone mental, emotional, and physical aid. Ask yourself...

It may soon become cliché (alas, rightfully so, given the state of our Union) to mock Jefferson’s meditation on freedom and happiness. A wonderful nod to human potential, his Declaration of Independence. Yet as words to be believed in the context of surety, at times ever since (as, at present), his honorable assertions have found themselves suffocating in an ever-bloating class of misfits, to name but a few: Uncle Sam, of his ongoing lie about getting fiscally responsible; Big Business, of its entrenched refusal to enforce regulations that would protect the welfare of its employees, the financial interests of its shareholders, and the health of air, water, and earth; George W. Bush, of his insistence that the U.S. had no other choice than to invade Iraq, though his decision was based only on a presumption: that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (an invasion which subsequently enabled the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi citizens); and Congress, of its childless members’ unending feuds and stalemates, and dizzying devotion to vacations and pay-raises.

In our fair land of hyper-intolerance (and too much tolerance of intolerance), one of the constantly given rationales for why prejudice and inequality are still so rampant is that we are a nation too stressed-out, or too exhausted, or too identity-challenged, or...; and, in any case, that too many now are too angry and apathetic; thus have we either forgotten how, or lost the will, to control those particularly pervasive feelings: desperation, fear, hopelessness. Hogwash. The real problem is that our nation has grown too big and dumb from too many half-developed adults: eternal brats who in childhood were not availed the basics of healthy behavior (politeness, decency, social aptitude, honesty, and so on), or, were taught, but for one reason or another decided, upon reaching independence, to subordinate good and goodwill.

(Consider the likes of Alec Baldwin, who last week characterized a British reporter as a “toxic little queen” after the reporter noted that Baldwin’s wife had tweeted during actor James Gandolfini's funeral; consider ESPN reporter Chris Broussard, who, after NBA player Jason Collins in April had publicly announced he’s homosexual, responded (with a particularly well-spiced intolerance) that he believes Collins is in “open rebellion” against God; consider Todd Akin’s (Rep-MO) misogynist-bordering-on-prejudicial comment about rape in last fall’s Missouri senatorial race: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down”; consider the radio bombast, Rush Limbaugh, who, in recently commenting about the possibility of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016, asked Americans if they “want to vote for somebody, a woman, and actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis”; and, of course, consider Southern cook Paula Deen’s outed prejudice after statements like “I feel like the South is almost less prejudiced, because black folks [implying servants] played such an integral part in our lives” and “Come out here, Hollis [Johnson, her driver, bodyguard, and assistant, who at the time was gazing at her from offstage]. We can’t see you standing against that dark board.” And on and on and on...)

Prejudice is like sandstone: Its layers keep multiplying and multiplying, unendingly. As a twenty-first century American, Chef Paula may quite possibly be dean of a “new prejudice,” a kind through which (despite continuous advancements in what constitutes “right” and “fair,” advancements one would suppose would naturally kill prejudice) she chooses to stay stuck in old ways, despite their having been proven to be wrong ways — in her case, the ways of the Old South, from which she learned her particular brand of ignorance and its bad habits. Habits she has not corrected, because she refuses to evolve with correctness.

It is not without irony that this year’s Independence Day celebration coincides with the 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg, the three-day (July 1-3) American-against-American bloodbath that culminated on the very eve of the Independence Day celebration, and The Gettysburg Address — both of which shook mindful Americans to an abrupt reassessment of cultural and political best practices.

In one of perhaps millions of letters written by soldiers during the war, Union officer Sullivan Ballou, in a particularly soulful letter to his wife and children, declared: “...my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.” He continued: “I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”

Sullivan Ballou: American of conscience. Invested American. An American who, as most others of his time who supported the Union, believed that, in return for its guarantee of freedom, he owed his country, at once, a debt of extrinsic devotion as well as active participation in the good causes that preserve freedom.

Comparably, with his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln reaffirmed that “all men are created equal.” And then in earnest he hailed:

“...the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom....” [My italics.]

Six score and thirty years since that solemn call to devotion, our great country seems needful of yet another new birth of freedom.

  1. ABC News, citing a congressional report.