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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Let That Old-Time Freedom Ring Out

Independence Day is a flagpole we grasp once a year to try to steady ourselves.

July 04, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

We are two peoples looking in different directions: those who believe we're on the right track, and those who think we're not. We are a hundred peoples, fragmented by wealth, language, culture, ability, sensibility and opportunity. We are two peoples divided by commitment. Half of us vote, half do not.

We are one people with red, white and blue bunting on our lampposts. With our cook grills sizzling in the shade. With our eyes uplifted to fireworks blooming over dimpled water.

This Fourth of July falls on Wednesday, the most ambivalent day of the week. This is fitting. Travel across the United States. People worry that the country is going nowhere fast. But ask them about their lives. They thrive on ever-bigger ambitions for themselves.

Independence Day is a fanciful wisp of hope. Just like the nation whose birthday we celebrate. Independence Day marks a trail of bread crumbs from our past to our present, one as uncertain as the other. Independence Day is a flagpole we grasp once a year to try to steady ourselves.

We are an improbable nation of people and peoples. Calculating the odds 225 years ago, you couldn't have found a bookie in the world to dare a bet on the future of the United States. Nothing like it had ever survived. There was no model for a congregation of angry malcontents with a conceit that they could govern themselves. History, and common sense, told otherwise. Yes, republics founded on individual sovereignty are commonplace now. For most of human experience, though, the idea suggested mob rule. The Greek city-states were an experiment to the contrary. And the Swiss pulled it off 800 years ago with their cantons. But there had never been anything to succeed on the scale of the 13 squabbling colonies of this New World.

We are people born of optimism but united by cynicism. A nation founded on the principle of self-governance that has always been skeptical of government. Today we have more democracy and more government than anyone in the beginning could have imagined. But no less cynicism. "A cynic," said that old cynic H.L. Mencken, "is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."

We are people united by idealism too.

The Declaration of Independence grants as self-evident that all men are created equal. When the last of the 56 delegates signed this declaration on July 4, 1776, they surely meant to assert only that the people in the colonies were equal to the people of mother England. For not then, and not now, was individual equality ever self-evident--as meaning that you and I and everyone else in the land stands on the same footing. Some of the white men who wrote and signed this declaration held dominion over slaves and others tolerated slavery.

But in the decades since, equality has come to mean just that--a nearly universal aspiration, never attained and maybe unattainable. But a right. And when denied, denounced as a wrong.

We are battle-scarred people. The Declaration of Independence was an act of war. On average, this country has gone to war every 20 years since. The nation sent me to war. My newspaper dispatched me to another. My father fought two wars. Our grandfathers fought in the war to end all wars. Their fathers fought Spain. And their fathers fought each other. Our last war was 10 years ago.

Today, we deploy our soldiers to be peacekeepers.

We are ever-busier people, but without clear purpose. Our material gains are the envy of the world. Our material values are not. John Adams, a conservative among the founding fathers, expressed hope that America's Revolutionary War generation could create the security for a commercial class that would bring prosperity so that, finally, our citizens could pursue enlightenment. Instead, we pour our lives into our accumulations, following the wiggy exhortation of that other signer of the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin: "Time is money."

We are young people, and we are restless about what we've been bequeathed: a single-minded world of corporate growth. We are baby boomers and we ask--at least some of us ask: Is this the best we can do with our turn at leadership? We are the aging "greatest generation" and we've seen it all, but we've never seen anything like now.

We are people of faith, separated by faiths. We are charitable people and me-first people and predatory people--and there seems to be too many of some and not enough of another. We are down-to-earth people, but we scoop up those lottery tickets by the handful, just in case. We speak of forgiveness on Sunday; we vote for vengeance on Tuesday. We believe in nothing so dearly as freedom, except conformity. We are TV people and book people and golf-on-Sunday people and my-grandpa-gave-me-this-T-shirt people.

In celebration of it all, in spite of it all, we are millions of people with our arms locked around a shared dream: the American Dream.

"I love America because it is a confused, chaotic mess," philosopher Edward Abbey said, "and I hope we can keep it this way for at least another thousand years .... Who gave us permission to live this way? Nobody did. We did."

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