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A Nation Born of Whiners, by George

July 03, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Every year around this time, someone comes down our block planting miniature American flags on every front porch. It is no accident that the responsible party is a real estate agent, reminding us so aptly that American capitalism is often indistinguishable from American patriotism.

As if we need the help.

Dead president's birthday coming up? How 'bout we sell you some sheets and a comforter?

Want to commemorate those who have fallen in battle? We're taking 10% off all our prices. And staying open until midnight. But wait, that's not all . . . in the interest of elevating what the Fourth of July has become in my household and most others (a beach / brew / barbecue fest), I could not think of a more constructive or patriotic act than to reread the Declaration of Independence.

What a mistake.

I thought I'd be entranced by its statement of principles, its passion for freedom, its exegesis of what was right with the New World and hopelessly wrong with the old.

And I was, to some extent.

Mostly, though, I was bowled over--may the founding fathers forgive me--by the absolutely whiny tone of the thing. Here we have, along with Thomas Jefferson's famously lofty prose ("We hold these truths to be self evident . . . "), one of the earliest expressions of the relentless self-obsession that is at the core of the American character.

A close reading of the Declaration of Independence, preferably aloud in the whiny tones of a teenager, can do much to explain the flowering 220 years later of the current American Age of Self-Absorption--the rage toward toxic parents, the apotheosis of that bundle of psychic need they call the Inner Child. John Hancock, meet John Bradshaw.

Those founding fathers might just as readily have been called the founding children, for their declaration reads like the sort of screed someone in therapy might write to justify why all contact with a rigid, over-controlling father has been severed.

Enough about you, despicable despot daddy. What about our needs?


Probably you remember the opening lines: When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with one another. . . .

But what you are likely to have forgotten is what follows, less a declaration of independence than a list of grievances, a catalog of sins, a rationalization of the colonists' decision to run away from home.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. . . .

. . . He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness [note the Oedipal overtones] his invasions on the rights of the people. . . . He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. . . . He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. [Sure, blame the other guy. Never mind that you started it, Thomas.] In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our related Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury."

A bad dad indeed, and cagey too:

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge sentiments meant to be digested by the candle glow of the 18th century in the harsh electric glare of the 20th. But the signers were not psychologically unsophisticated rubes. Technology aside, these were educated statesmen, philosophers and (for what it's worth) gentlemen. They make a good case in the declaration for political and economic independence. But there's no escaping the remonstrative tone, the bruised feelings.

If King George III had been a considerate monarch--a little less Lear, a little more Ward Cleaver--we Americans might be driving on the left, riding double-decker buses and keeping a stiff upper lip.

But we don't.

So rue Britannia, as Bullwinkle once said.

Our holiday sales are better too.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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