What does it mean to celebrate July 4th?
Across America, thousands of communities will celebrate today in big and small ways, with local and larger events, holiday fare, parades, music and readings of the Declaration of Independence. Some people may not get past the hot dogs and watermelon, but I hope that many will think, even for a couple minutes, about what it means to live in a country built on principles of democracy, where the voice of the people matters. “We the people” were, for many years, defined as white men, but that has changed over time, as laws have codified standards to make our society fairer and more just. That doesn’t make us perfect. In fact, the founding (yes) fathers aimed to create not a perfect union, but a more perfect union. It was the dream of that more perfect union that inspired leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for rights to be extended to all Americans, beyond those whom our founding fathers narrowly included. We’ve progressed in increments, not in leaps.
Our more perfect – but far from perfect – union is being tested every day. We look around, and many ask (I ask.) if our very democracy is at risk. We see children and families at our southern border treated in cruel, brutal and inhumane ways. We see inequities increasing across society, and leaders without compassion. We see a leader more comfortable with despots than democrats. We see regulations capriciously enforced to restrict our collaborations with Chinese colleagues and threats silencing our speech.
A holiday that traditionally has celebrated unity in our country will be a show of military force this year. A colleague emailed me yesterday saying: “It was unbelievable to drive into the city today and see the tanks and to not have access to the federal park land this weekend (as I’m not a Republican donor, I didn’t get a ticket to the event.). As a taxpayer in DC, I am appalled at the waste of money…when we have major issues of concern (detention centers, flooding).”
I’ve been multiple times to the massive Washington, D.C., celebration of all that is America, and felt that we were in the melting pot of the country as the evening ended with a magnificent display of fireworks. I never left the U.S. Capitol grounds without looking up and remembering that my grandparents were immigrants who came with almost nothing and spoke no English. I always left feeling just a little better about being an American. I will not be there this year.
We can rekindle the principles of democracy.
I’ve been reading Become America by Eric Liu, who writes about civic democracy, civic religion and the responsibilities of citizenship. He defines American civic religion as the creed of ideals stated at the nation’s founding and restated at junctures of crisis (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed. He says we should rekindle our faith in the fragile experiment of democracy and in one another. It is on each of us to stand up for the vision of democracy expressed in our founding documents and updated through our nation’s history to be inclusive. Adam Gopnik, in A Thousand Small Sanities, another book written after the 2016 presidential election, described the practice of liberal democracy as, “that magical marriage of free individuals and fair laws – of the pursuit of happiness, each to her own joy, with the practice of disinterested justice, everyone treated the same.” I believe in that vision.
Freedom and fairness are central to American democracy and to public health. Access to safe environments, affordable health care and quality public education are at the heart of public health and should be central tenets of our democracy today. Not long ago, they were. We may be guaranteed the right to bear arms, but we also should be guaranteed the right to arrive home safely and to not be struck down in drive-by shootings or treated differentially by the judicial system because of race.
We have so much capacity as a country to love, treat one another fairly, embrace strangers and those in need, prevent disease and illness and not turn away the sick, protect the environment and invest in our children. “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s famous poem about the Statue of Liberty, written in 1883, contains the lines, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We were a country that for many years, not perfectly, welcomed strangers to our shores.
In April 1968, Robert Kennedy announced the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and closed with these words: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within the country whether they be white or whether they be black.”
Today, more than ever, we need love, wisdom and compassion. We also need programs that redress wrongs perpetrated on many fellow Americans and those who seek to join us. To rededicate ourselves to the goal of achieving a more perfect union is as good a reason as I can imagine to celebrate the 4th of July. I believe in the American dream. It is the American reality that I want to change.
Happy Independence Day!
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.