Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day, 2016

Yes, I know that today is supposed to be Musical Monday. But today is a special day, and so Musical Monday will not appear this week, but will return one week from today in this space. You'll survive.

Today is Monday, July 4th - the American holiday of Independence Day. It celebrates the day in 1776 on which the Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain) was formally adopted by the Continental Congress. The draft of the declaration had actually already been approved by the delegates on July 2nd, but the formal adoption came two days later. This, perhaps, marks the start of the longstanding tradition of Congress putting off doing the right thing.

The Fourth of July is the traditional high point of summer, roughly midway between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September. It's a day for parades, speeches, fireworks, picnics, historical recreations, and a general good time as we celebrate the birth of the United States as an independent nation.

This year, I think our celebration of Independence Day ought to be a bit more reflective. We're in a presidential election year, after all, and our ability to be governed by an elected president rather than a hereditary king was one of the reasons we chose to declare our independence from the mother country. Our first President was, of course, George Washington, often called "The Indispensable Man" or "The Father of His Country." With courage, dignity, and foresight, Washington established the parameters and initial traditions of the office that has since been held by such other towering figures as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. And by lesser figures who have diminished it*.

This year, 240 years after the Declaration of Independence and 227 years after George Washington assumed office as our first President, we face a probable election choice between two candidates who share the distinction of having the lowest public approval ratings of any candidates in our history. You'd think that out of a population of 320 million people, we could do better.

But I digress.

One of the traditional themes of Independence Day celebrations is freedom. This is a word we Americans love, but for which we have many shades of understanding. When I was in grade school**, we were required to take Civics classes to learn about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. One of the lessons drummed into us back then was the difference between freedom and license, a difference that is pretty much ignored today. Here are the relevant definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Freedom: (1) The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint; (2) Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.

License: (1) Formal or official permission to do something; (2) Freedom to behave as one wishes, especially in a way that results in excessive or unacceptable behavior.

It seems to me that what many of today's Americans, both on the political right and left, demand is not freedom, but license. Consider the following examples:

- Many on the Christian Right define religious freedom as the right not only to live according to their own beliefs, but to impose those beliefs on others or deny others the freedom to live according to the tenets of different religions.

- Many on the Left call for the legalization of drugs, ignoring their catastrophic impact on society.

- Many on the conservative Right reject even the discussion of any limits on the possession and sale of firearms of all types and on the right to carry them openly or concealed everywhere, ignoring the carnage on our streets and in our homes that's a result of the ready availability of weapons vastly more powerful than those imagined by the authors of the Second Amendment.

- Many on the Left demand a vaguely-defined wage equality, ignoring the fact that some jobs are more responsible or more technical than others, and consequently deserve a higher rate of pay***.

On this Independence Day, 240 years after the declaration of our independence, Americans around the world celebrate not the love of freedom, but the lust for license, draped in patriotic red, white, and blue bunting and paraded to the lively tune of fifes and drums.

I think we need to bring back old-style Civics classes ... but I also think they'd be treated as an anachronism by Americans besotted with the idea that freedom should know no bounds, including those of common sense and decency.

Have a good day. Enjoy your freedoms, and let the rest of us enjoy ours as well.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* Yes, W, I'm talking about you. And Millard Fillmore. And James Buchanan.

** Shortly after the dinosaurs died out.

*** A "living wage" is not the same thing, and is worth supporting.


Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

I've never had a civics class; but they sound like a good idea to distinguish freedom from license. Also, how the state and federal government works or should work.

I would like to see referendum votes here; and possibly recall votes too!

Does service in a National Guard count as a duty of citizenship?

Grand Crapaud said...

I took civics back in h.s. I remember it as a jumble of facts we had to memorize! History was at least interesting.

allenwoodhaven said...

Spot on! Bilbo for Senator at the very least. Pick an office and it should be yours.