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!
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.
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.
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.
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.