At this time of year, compelled by a latent patriotic streak, I often find myself pulling up a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I find the first passage stirring each and every time. The prose is so beautiful, the sentiments so impassioned. Even though when they wrote, “all men are created equal,” they were, in fact, only really talking about men and not actually all men, I would say it was a pretty propitious beginning for a nation. It is obviously important to note that the men who drafted this document were functioning in a particular social and historical context and so I forgive them, to a great extent, for not including language about women, people of color, the LGBT community, etc. The concepts of feminism and civil rights were barely a glimmer in the eye of our founders. I do think, in their minds, they were creating a country in which citizens could be fundamentally free and that over time, they would leave it to the people to decide to whom this freedom applied and what exactly it meant. In 2012, however, I would like to hold us to a higher standard. After all, we have had a few years in the interim to work out the kinks. Although I am a bit of a cynic and feel like “Holidays” can be really arbitrary markers in the passage of time, I do appreciate a solid and socially sanctioned opportunity for contemplation. Also, I am a sucker for fireworks. Still, in moments, I absolutely struggle with my identity as a U.S. citizen. I worry that our domestic discourse has been reduced to a profoundly childish political game with no heed of the real consequences for our people. As recently as 2008, our First Lady was publicly eviscerated for simply acknowledging that we are a country with a history of discrimination and lack of opportunity. There is real dissonance with all the talk about what the founders intended and the reality that some of our citizens still don’t have equal rights or access to decent basic services. Meanwhile, the very groups that like to tout liberty and the original “values” of this great nation tend to support limiting the prospects for everyone but those in traditional positions of power.
Living with this kind of ambivalence---despairing over the state of our union while believing that progress will prevail---is my daily bread. As I wade through the morass of feelings and obsessively check in with Nate Silver in an effort to predict the future, I thought I would try real hope on for size. This year, there are a few things that make me truly proud to be an American.
1. Barack Hussein Obama is our president. That’s right, a black man is the president of the United States of America. That is still fairly mind-blowing, am I right? Oh, and a black man of mixed race, with an African father and a middle name that was the same exact surname of one of our country’s sworn enemies. This guy is so “other,” that fringe people (I am looking at you, Donald Trump) still insist he is a Muslim, Socialist, Communist who was not born in this country. And yet, WE DID IT. We elected him fair and square and might just do it again. This is fantastically American and is us at our best. By the way, the person who gave him a real run for his money? A woman. It’s getting better all the time.
2. Same-Sex Marriage is recognized by nine states and licenses are issued in six states (plus Washington, D.C. and on a couple of Indian Reservations). And several other states have legal avenues for recognizing same-sex unions. And the President just publicly endorsed same-sex marriage---unalienable rights! And people functioning in high-profile, mainstream positions, like the anchor Anderson Cooper can come out with fewer professional and personal consequences. And when Dan Savage decided to create the It Gets Better Project---a movement to develop awareness and a call to action regarding the bullying and the suffering of gay youth---practically an entire nation took to YouTube to lift people up. There we are again.
3. 30 million uninsured Americans just got healthcare. I will spare you my rhetoric about how this is a moral issue. And we can talk until the cows come home about whether or not you support various aspects of the new healthcare law. But make no mistake, this is one of the most powerful legislative achievements on behalf of under-served people in the last 40 years. I am so proud of the people who have fought for this bill and who believe, as I do, that a country has a responsibility to its citizens to help them when they are ill. NO WAY, the founders had in mind to leave people to get sick and die because they couldn’t afford care. NO WAY.
There are plenty of other, more modest reasons to hang bunting on the front porch this week. But I think even just the above will do for the time being. The march toward access and opportunity continues, despite a great many obstacles, both social and political. So, go ahead, accuse me of being a hippie, but I will say this . . . you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone (Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’). Happy 4th, one and all.
(Fireworks photo: Ian Kluft from Wikimedia Commons.)