What is Independence?

Independence Day.  The 4th of July.  A day of parades, fireworks, picnics, games and celebrations.  I remember growing up in Sioux Falls, SD, spending a day at “Westward Ho” playing games, enjoying a greased watermelon in the pool contest, swimming and at night going out in the country to shoot fireworks.

Fireworks in South Dakota was fun.   We’d drive out into the country, find a gravel road and locate a spot to shoot off a bunch of fireworks we’d bought at the big firework store on the edge of town.   South Dakota had (and I believe still has) very lax fireworks laws.  I recall as a kid lighting cones, roman candles, firecrackers, and a bunch of other things.   My dad would give me the punk (a slow burning small stick used to light fireworks), my mom worried that I’d burn myself, and I felt proud to be old enough to light the fuses.  By the time I was 12 I had taken over virtually all the lighting duties!

Later in high school and college July 4th meant 18 hour shifts at Village Inn Pizza.   I didn’t have to work so long, but I liked the idea of getting so many hours in one day so I volunteered to run the store all day.    Being in charge I’d try to make the day fun for the workers, though it was often pretty busy.   The Assistant Manager was always grateful – he was supposed to run the day shift!

That’s me with the pizza pan in hand (turning it so sauce spreads across the whole pie), back in 1981 running a shift at VIPP! Those were the days…

This year in Maine we went to Jay for fireworks last night, and today in Farmington there was a typical small New England town parade.  Some antique tractors, people representing companies and churches driving through town on makeshift floats, and local political candidates/parties dressing up, shaking hands, and of course, handing out candy.   Tootsie rolls, suckers, taffy and other candy thrown to the kids on the curb who rush out to grab it.

From the Daily Bulldog (an online Farminton newspaper), the 2012 Independence Day parade in Farmington Maine

The parade included calves for the kids to pet, a couple small bands, youth organizations, and at the end a line of eight firetracks from local communities, blazing their sirens in turn to the delight of the kids.   The firetrucks signify the end of the parade.  It was rainy, but the parade went on undaunted – and most of the time the rain was so light people put away their umbrellas.    The community is out, people chatting with each other…you can buy some strawberry shortcake or hot dogs (only $1), and it seems timeless.   One doubts the parade was much different thirty years ago or will be thirty years from now.

So what does this day mean?   Everyone knows what it signifies – the day the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.   But while the Declaration of Independence states vague ideals – all people are created equal, we have inalienable rights, and we should not be governed without the consent of the governed – what those ideals mean and how they are to be implemented are unclear.     When the Constitution was ratified 13 years later it still allowed slavery, women couldn’t vote and since then independence – freedom – has been an on going project.

Another photo from the Daily Bulldog: http://www.dailybulldog.com/db

To me independence day is a recognition not of a past event or ideal, but of the on going process of building true freedom.   All may be created equal, but some are born in poverty and others in plenty.    We fought to end slavery, to give the vote to women, to create civil rights for blacks, and now to provide full rights to homosexuals.   We worked to create public education so all could have opportunity.   We’re trying now to figure out how to make health care something all Americans enjoy, how to expand economic opportunity, and how to handle an economic crisis thirty years in the making.

There is something this day does not represent: selfish individualism.    Kurt Anderson may have a point in the New York Times today that the problems we face come from the triumph of radical individualism over our sense of community and shared duties.   Freedom was once an ideal that had a context – we are free in a community, our freedom is connected with duties and obligations to those around us.

Now it seems that many people see freedom simply as a desire to be able to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences to the rest of the community.   If a CEO at a financial firm can earn $25 million bonuses thanks to bogus mortgage backed CDOs, hey, that’s fine.  So what if it brings down the economy, the market decides they get a bonus and who are they to question the market (especially when they can manipulate it!)

But it’s not just the bigwigs, it’s all of us.   I know that my thinking is quite often very selfish.   Yes, that’s human nature, but it’s also human nature to be connected with others.   Freedom is the proper balance of ones’ own individual desires and interests and the sense of duty to the community.    Ignore the community and things start to fall apart and the capacity to achieve ones desires and goals becomes more difficult.

Farmington has been a community since the late 1700s…I’m not sure what year this picture dates from.

That’s our challenge now – independence means rediscovering the balance between selfish pursuit of whatever we want and the recognition that we need to care about our environment, community and neighbors.   We’re all hurt when any American goes hungry, lacks adequate health care, is denied equal opportunity, is unfairly put in jail or in any way mistreated.

In that sense the parade today in Farmington – a community coming together – reflects what we need more of.   And it’s already beginning.   People are starting to focus on eating local food, buying from area merchants, and working together to maintain that sense of community that has traditionally defined American life.    Strong communities will yield a strong country.   Crass individualism and selfishness will tear us apart.

  1. #1 by Geographic Designer on July 4, 2012 - 19:49

    Great post! I actually just finished designing a poster for South Dakota. Check it out! http://50statesdesignproject.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/47-the-soul-of-south-dakota/

  2. #2 by Lee on July 4, 2012 - 22:12

    I lean toward the concept that we really have “interdependence” nowadays as opposed to independence. There is a clear impact on our country and our fiscal well being when other major players around the world have a crisis. Likewise, if we choose to balance our budgets on the backs of the poorest in our country, we will I believe see the impact in a myriad of ways

  3. #3 by Alan Scott on July 5, 2012 - 00:29

    Independence Day is exactly what it says . A bunch of farmers, merchants, and tradesmen accepted a formal document stating why they had decided to rebel against the strongest empire in the the World. It was the ultimate act of faith . Logically they had no chance of winning . The colonists set the standard for persevering during long dark years . George Washington was no military genius . His greatness was keeping his army alive until the war turned and then giving up power when the job was done .

    We are the heirs of the freedom they paid for in blood . I hope they are not looking down on us shaking their heads .

  4. #4 by Jeff Fordham on July 5, 2012 - 01:43

    Scott, thank you for the brilliant post ! What a satisfying read in the midst of all the negative banter as of late. I happened to find your blog while over at ROARR, and fully intend on stopping by in the future. I could not agree with you more about the strength of our nation being built upon our sense of community and the responsibility that comes with it.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on July 8, 2012 - 12:55

      Thanks – I feel lucky to be living in rural Maine where community values are still strong.

  5. #6 by lbwoodgate on July 5, 2012 - 02:58


    Your notion of community and working together to advance the common good is pretty much the conclusion Michael J. Sandel draws in his book about “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”

    “A just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility (Bentham’s Utilitarianism) or by securing freedom of choice (Libertarianism). To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life (Aristotelian) , and to create a PUBLIC culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise.” (p.260) emphases and words in parentheses are mine

    • #7 by Scott Erb on July 9, 2012 - 03:22

      I think that’s one reason why the Scandinavian countries do so good, they have strong communities. We have struggles – diverse cultures, large cities, increasing economic disparity — that make this more difficult. I think is possible, but it has to be made a priority. Some (much of) social welfare spending, in my opinion, should come via community organizers and tied towards building community, not just be checks from the government.

  6. #8 by La on July 13, 2012 - 14:16

    That Village Inn Pizza looks vaguely familiar… can it really be 30+ years ago… Somehow it looks much smaller than I remember… Enjoy your blog

    • #9 by Scott Erb on July 14, 2012 - 01:11

      Hi La, I can’t tell from your comment – do I know you? It’s the Sioux Falls, SD Village Inn, across from the Western Mall. I’m not sure what the building is used for now.

      • #10 by La on July 15, 2012 - 20:45

        Sure you do…Sorry, used my online quick name…Laurel …I know I worked at least one of those long July 4th days w/you. I don’t get here often but enjoy reading occasionally.

        I have to share a funny experience with that site … About 15-20 years ago I was in SF with my pastor and I hadn’t been in SF for quite some time..years.. and I was feeling nostalagic so we were going out to eat and I said I want to show you one of the places I worked while at Augie… and at the time it was a Hooters!! We howled with laughter Last time I was by it was some casino but again its been years since I’ve been in SF…

  7. #11 by Gary DeWaay on July 30, 2012 - 01:14

    That Hooters was run by a friend of a friend who never managed anything before, let alone a restaurant. It didn’t last long… the gals that worked there often just sat in a booth together chatting while the customers had to go up to the bar to order, The inmates were running the asylum I think its just a casino now as mentioned. SD has a million of them… state owned poker machines in every bar. Most little places like that let you drink for free as long as you are gambling. Gambling has taken a hit because of a smoking ban, so who knows how long it will last. My buddy remembers the Village Pizza place, but I don’t. He’s lived here all his life… I moved here in 1982. Cheers.

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