Commentary: It's July 4th.
My earliest memory of Independence Day was, of course, fireworks. High above the Croton River, unbelievably loud and magnificent, they exploded beautifully. Each 4th, my father wore a police uniform. A decorated U.S. Marine pilot during WWII, he was a volunteer auxiliary cop. He directed traffic to and from the fireworks.
I grew to admire the courage and imagination of our “Founding Fathers,” and our country's uniqueness. To build a country in wilderness, in the 17th Century … to distill 18th Century notions of human rights into a new nation dedicated to liberty, equality, with decisions made by men, not by kings or priests, was wonderful. After leading a rebellious army to independence, George Washington twice walked away from the near-absolute power other such figures have consistently taken or accepted. What a tragic irony that they couldn't solve slavery!
As a kid I was more concerned with baseball. Brooklyn-born, I rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When I was 9, “dem Bums” won their first World Series, over the “classier” New York Yankees, with Jackie Robinson still a key player. My own life already mirrored the integration they symbolized: my Cub Scout den included several Jews and a couple of black boys. Maybe that made it easy for me to volunteer as a civil rights worker at 17. And to see clearly the ugliness of U.S. racism.
I'd previously assumed our country was like Gary Cooper in “High Noon:” not greedy nor avaricious nor aggressive; but when pushed to the edge, as by Japan and the Nazis just before my birth, brave and dogged in fighting for what's right. Fighting for human freedoms, liberty of thought and equal opportunity.
We strayed far from those ideals often during the 20th Century. In many countries, mostly inhabited by non-Europeans, we stood against freedom in favor of dictators or oligarchs whose support we found politically convenient. I came to manhood in the midst of one of the worst of those strayings. Without judging others' choices, based on what they knew or felt at the time, I could express my deep love of this country only by shouting out against that war, as I would later show my love for my father by watching his driving carefully and alerting him to dangers. (Again, I do not judge others; nor do I belittle the courage of many who fought in that war, the true comradeship soldiers experienced, or the sufferings of many. I just can't celebrate the cynical politicians who sent them.)
Love is complex. Marital love, familial love, love of country. Anyone for whom patriotism is a simple matter, bereft of consideration or challenges, isn't paying attention – or is abusing the idea of patriotism by screaming “I love my country!” for not-so-patriotic reasons.
Setting off fireworks may be fun, but doesn't begin to celebrate what's great about our country. Contemplating the courage and intellectual range of our ancestors comes closer. So would emulating them. Just as showing up in church is not a true celebration of Jesus if one spends most of one's time being cruel to others, pledging allegiance or standing for the national anthem is a far less meaningful form of patriotism than trying, as our forefathers did, to assess with an independent mind (not by listening to king, bishop, or Rush) how our nation might best steer its complex course through a difficult world. Speaking up honestly, as they did, without concern for personal consequences. Taking risks for freedom – our own and others'.
The true celebration would be working to extend the theoretical freedoms they articulated to all.