America the beautiful, ongoing experiment in democracy
by Whitley Clifton | July 12, 2019 9:00 am
Last Updated: July 11, 2019 at 4:51 pm
Editorial column by Steve Bullington
“ …the big winner in 2016 was a politics of despair and division, the feeling that one side can be happy only if another side is sad, that there is no collective hope.” (Bad Stories, Steve Almond)
Holidays and celebrations are so important. They celebrate the stories that have shaped who we are and what we aspire to. Independence Day offers us the opportunity to recall the founding stories of our nation and to share our pride and gratitude for our country.
With the movement of British troops against the patriots in Lexington and Concord, the fighting had begun the year before, in April of 1775. On July 2, 1776, representatives of the 13 colonies voted to dissolve “all political connection” with the mother country. On July 4, they approved Jefferson’s preamble and signed a Declaration of Independence… “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people…” What strikes us every time here is the tenuous nature of it all, how it all depended on the willingness and trust and courage of small group of particular human beings.
This is a moment for us to celebrate, to think and feel together. Perhaps it can also be an occasion for us to get in touch again with the hope that so animated our founding and the responsibility that our blessedness and freedom entail. One of the difficult questions facing us just now is how to respond to the thousands of people, mostly from central America, who are seeking entrance into our country. It’s once tragic and complicated. In wrestling with this, it’s important to remember that these are people like us, each with a family and a story all their own. Their collective story is one that involves colonization, often corrupt governments, gross exploitation and inequality, a history that our country has had some part in. (It would so behoove the conversation for us to be more conversant with this history and to make addressing the root causes a central feature of our response.) Meantime, the personal stories these folks arrive with now day after day are of fear and desperation. The photo of the 25-year-old Salvadoran man Oscar Ramirez and his young daughter Valeria floating dead in the Rio Grande last week is indicative. Ramirez’s wife Tania told authorities that they had left an impoverished life in El Salvador planning to apply for asylum here. Having gone first to a legal port of entry and been turned away they made the fateful decision to try and swim across to a better lif, to freedom from violence, oppression, grinding poverty? Perhaps part of the animus directed at these folks by some in our country and the frustration felt by all of us has to do with their stark reminder, on the one hand of human helplessness (we’d rather not face?) and on the other of a daring hopefulness (we’ve come somehow to scorn?). Surely how we respond says a lot about us human beings, as people who empathize and care, whatever our politics. It will also say a lot about our country and serve as barometer of where we find ourselves today in relation to our own founding story.
Freedom isn’t free or ever finished. It, too, has a story, one that we are always writing. One that always involves sacrifice, something we hear precious little about these days. Freedom must face repeated challenges from without and within. From the bad faith of those who would play on fear for their own gain. From the trade in personal power and the outsize influence of big money. From citizen inertia, from hopelessness and laziness. Given the hyper-partisanship we’re so enmeshed in now, it’s easy to become cynical. Somehow, it’s become customary for us to entertain and distract ourselves with an endless stream of news and analysis that is mostly self-congratulatory, mean-spirited, and cynical rather than truly informative and provoking of critical thinking. Isn’t it our duty as citizens to resist this, to ask more of ourselves and one another? Today, as much as ever, the freedom we so prize is asking for thoughtful citizen engagement and a rediscovery of hope. Jon Meacham’s beautiful, timely book “The Soul of America, The Battle for Our Better Angels,” focuses on critical moments in American history when presidents and citizens met great challenges with courage and creativity. The concluding chapter, titled “The First Duty of An American Citizen,” leaves us with four proposals: enter the arena, resist tribalism, respect facts and deploy reason, and keep history in mind. Thus, may we recover hope in our common life and build that hope by our actions and the choices we make in our daily lives.
On this Independence Day there’s still much to celebrate and be thankful for, including people near and far who are building hope and community in family life and in the good work they do in the world day by day. So we will sing and pray and celebrate wholeheartedly again, recalling the inspiring story of our founding as a nation. Commit to listening better to one another, to sharing our personal stories and deepest longings for our country. For the sake of this nation we love and the freedom we cherish, take the “Sworn Again America” pledge: “I pledge to be an active American, to show up for others, to govern my self, to help govern my community. I recommit myself to my country’s creed, to cherish liberty as a responsibility. I pledge to serve and push my country when right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be set right. Wherever my ancestors and I were born, I claim America and I pledge to live like a citizen.”