Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thoughts on Independence Day

Sage at Fort McHenry

The last verse of the national anthem reads, “Oh, thus be it ever, when free men shall stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!  Blessed with victory and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’  And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

In some ways it’s a bittersweet thing to be an American, but a great privilege.  There seem to be so many expressions of patriotism that are sort of a fist-pumping modern version of the rockets bursting in smoky, red air.  As Salon puts it, being a patriot does not require you to “fly the flag from your porch and the antenna of your car every day”.  Today we celebrate with fireworks which were meant to imitate and remind us of the cannons’ blasts, and probably to singe us a little so that we’re grateful for the peace we do have on our own soil.

One of my favorite heroes of our history is John Adams, the farmer-president whose infamous grumpiness I respect so wholly.  He was willing to get dirty, to be friendless, and his unwavering sense and expectation of loyalty in some cases got him into trouble -- but for the most part he was staunch and pragmatic, a man who thought deeply and pushed hard for the greater good.  I’ve sometimes wondered what he would think -- what any of them would think, Lincoln and Jefferson and so on -- of our lightning-fast, increasingly complex world now and how we conduct the business of governing it.

The United States didn’t really have the first constitution, the Magna Carta predated us; and we didn’t have the first democracy in history, of course; but we sorta did have both at the same time in a way that was unprecedented.  Greco-Roman representative democracy and the British divisions between monarchy, lords, and commoners were different than the system our founders set up.  We have less class stratification between the houses and branches of government, more power in the people to give their input, and hopefully the ability of even the most common to not only have a right but an incentive to think through the issues and participate.  

I often feel right now that our government isn’t particularly flexible, since bureaucracy and mind-numbing legislative complexity (can we say pork and special interest? taxes?) have snowballed over time, but I suppose it really is quite flexible compared to much else.  There has been civil war and disagreement, but for the most part the U.S. has been able to transition power from person to person and group to group without much of the danger that we still see in many other places.  And it has been able to do this while accommodating some of the greatest demographic diversity in the world.  (With a shout-out to Brazil and India.)

So, when I see national pride expressed on unthinking bumper stickers about knee-jerk protectionism or in terms of military might, I’m not very thrilled.  What I think is one of the greatest American gifts, though, is that we have passion.  Many passions.  I think passion combined with drive AND with a democratic framework is a pretty special American trait.  So I guess it makes me sad when people only know the first verse of the national anthem, nod to it and go grill their cattle carcasses -- it’s not just the Brave and the great bombs bursting (wasn’t that referring to the enemy bombs, anyway?) that make our country great, but the humility to recognize that we don’t quite deserve everything we’ve got, and that our loved homes are protected by god (whichever yours is) in whom is the ultimate trust.

I really do tear up at that last verse; it makes me think, somehow, of those converted Lamanites who threw down their weapons and submitted themselves to the enemy -- not because they were weak, but because they were strong, and trusted in God, and literally stood bravely between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.  And their children fought for liberty because they really understood it, probably were so receptive to their mothers’ teachings because many of their fathers had been martyred the generation before.  Think of that, understand that in all likelihood the men stepped to the front lines to protect their wives and children, and realize that those widows were still willing to teach their children to trust in God.  His power has made and preserved us a nation -- let’s remember whose arm that is as we watch those bombs bursting in air tonight.

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