Yesterday we celebrated the courage our forefathers showed 242 years ago in throwing off the chains of oppression in the interest of a new, more representative government. They created the Declaration of Independence with the idea it would precede a living document–our Constitution — that would inoculate the country from the whims of its leaders. (For instance, Ben Franklin suggesting the turkey rather than bald eagle as our national bird.) It was truly brave and unprecedented to place so much power in the hands of commoners. (White, male commoners, anyway.)
An honest commemoration of the Fourth of July should therefore acknowledge the importance of differing opinion as the linchpin upon which our government was formed. Checks and balances were purposely baked into the Constitution because our leaders understood that thoughtful debate creates stronger outcomes. So why is it that American politics seems more divided than ever?
Rather than civilized discourse over issues, each side demonizes the other. We’re left to choose between extremes, robbed of the benefits of rigorously-vetted compromise. Rather than leaders who inspire creativity, we’re left with opportunists who co-opt the symbols once used to unite us in the interest of marginalizing those who disagree.
The passage of time clouds objectivity. The aging Liberty Bell hasn’t been rung since 1846 (it’s symbolically “tapped” 13 times each July 4). When questioning the loyalty of those born beyond our shores, we conveniently forget that eight of the signers of our Declaration of Independence were born in Britain. We ignore that two of our nation’s great national symbols were made overseas: the Liberty Bell in England and the Statue of Liberty in France. Heck, 10 percent of American flags, most American outdoor grills and 93 percent of fireworks used in the United States were made in China.
We often change history to fit our chosen narratives. The story of Betsy Ross and the creation of the American flag has no archival evidence to substantiate it other than her grandson’s unsupported claim a century later, but the myth itself has become too ingrained in our national history to correct the record. Champions of prayer in school often worry that some might leave out the part of the Pledge of Allegiance that stresses one nation, “under God.” Most are unaware its author, Francis Julius Bellamy, was a Christian socialist who “believed in the absolute separation of church and state” and did not include “under God” at all (it was added 56 years later in 1948).
In fact, Bellamy’s instructions for a gesture of respect to accompany his Pledge was eerily similar to what became the Nazi salute. To avoid confusion, Congress had to amend the Flag Code to suggest placing the hand over the heart instead. This confusion was understandable considering an editorial Bellamy wrote in The Illustrated American: “Where all classes of society merge insensibly into one another, every alien immigrant of inferior race may bring corruption to the stock. There are races more or less akin to our own whom we may admit freely and get nothing but advantage by the infusion of their wholesome blood. But there are other races, which we cannot assimilate without lowering our racial standard, which should be as sacred to us as the sanctity of our homes.”
Rather than reconnecting with the ideals for which our founders fought so hard, we’ve turned the Fourth of July into a celebration of gluttony. Americans consume 155 million hot dogs on on this day each year (72 of which were eaten by Joey Chestnut in 10 minutes last year as he won his 10th Mustard Belt in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition). Whereas George Washington in 1778 ordered double rations of rum for his soldiers to celebrate the second anniversary, in 2018 we’ll consume over a billion dollars worth of beer during this “long weekend.”
Fueled by alcohol and nitrates, many of us will struggle to find the courage to be open to differing ideas. As talk turns toward our elected representatives and the direction of our country, the fireworks around the picnic table will no doubt rival anything in the sky.
In the face of such divisiveness, I choose that most American of approaches: I listen to those with whom I disagree and remain open to alternatives. This isn’t indecisive or spineless; it’s a nod to those who put their lives on the line in 1776 to create a system where respectful disagreement was not merely tolerated but encouraged. I’m not defined by being pro-Trump or anti-Trump, Republican or Democrat. I’m an American.
Listening to other viewpoints is the foundation of Independence Day.