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Are we losing our national narrative? Today is the 4th of July, 2011. I wish all my readers a happy and contemplative Independence Day. Every year, I seem to spend quite a bit of time of reflection as we approach and reach the Fourth of July. I reflect on our struggle for Independence from the British. I reflect on the ideas and ideals of that struggle which spilled into the subsequent drafting of our constitution and I reflect on the principles that our nation was founded upon.
Today however, if I were a visitor from another world and looked at our cable television landscape. I would see a July 4th Gem extravaganza, news channels honed in on the Casey Anthony trial, somewhere there are sitcoms packaged into a Fourth of July luaghathon. Yesterday there were Star Wars movies in a “Force of July” marathon…. On most channels though it’s just a regular day with their usual, day to day scheduling. The history channel is the only place that I seem to find some acknowledgement that there is something special about this day (outside of a special opportunity to sell jewelry…) History International is where I find their great documentary series “The Revolution” running. I appreciate that, but must it only be on History INTERNATIONAL where we find some introspection on the significance of this day?
The domestic branded History Channel is running a “How the States got their Shapes” marathon. For which, I suppose they have earned partial credit. Certainly there we should find some references throughout the day to the history in the years surrounding 1776.
Yes, certainly there are barbecues and gatherings all over this country. Fireworks displays, ball games, etc. But where are we reminded about that national narrative of liberty for all people. Liberty. I have said before is such a stirring word. Our liberty and mere existence here is miraculous. Regardless of your religious beliefs I would hope that most all would recognize that by right, this country should not exist. We broke away from THE world superpower of it’s time. It was the midst of extraordinary circumstances and time and time again we had great fortune on our side. We could have seen King George of England replaced by King George of the house of Washington. But, to our great fortune he wisely knew that we had just fought to rid ourselves of monarchy.
We had many opportunities to fall apart quibbling and quarreling along the way. There were compromises, but along the way we have always struggled to extend the original idea of freedom and liberty.
There was a recent survey that indicated that 25% of American’s could not identify the year that we declared our independence. Further about that many cannot identify from which country we declared our independence. Sadly as I looked at the polls demographic breakdown, it was clear that being older, white, college educated male made you more likely to correctly identify the answers. Has our public educational system failed us this badly? This is shameful.
It has led me down many paths of thought. First, about the goal of public education. I suppose most today would say that public education should have as its goal preparing students for the workforce or for higher education. I would argue that the primary goal of public education SHOULD be to prepare people for citizenship. They should learn of our history, not blindly memorizing dates with no goal other than to exercise their memory. Concepts of our founding, arguments of the construction of our constitution. It seems to me that a republic such as ours is in danger when our citizens are not well educated. I recall having ONE class in high school that was divided between civics and economics. I recall two things from that class. One is the teacher singling me out because I wasn’t familiar with a song that was getting a lot of radio at the time and forcing the entire class (amidst their groans) to listen for my benefit. The second was an unfortunate incident with an upperclassman that left a paper airplane hanging in his freshly curled hair…. Yes, it was an effective course….
I also marvel at historical figures the likes of Frederick Douglass who, after escaping slavery, teaching HIMSELF to read, then proceeded to study the constitution and ALL of the arguments surrounding it’s creation. Many would argue that he was brilliant, I certainly cannot argue against that. But I would argue that he had ambition, he had thirst for knowledge. These days we seem to be far from experiencing any such thirst.
Maybe complacency has taken over our existence. We don’t feel as though our freedoms are threatened, all is comfortable. History should teach us that we can never be complacent when it comes to our liberties. There have only rarely been brief windows of liberty in the entire history of humankind. We are blessed to be in quite a large window of such freedom.
Maybe the last few decades we have focused too much on the failures, foibles and problems of our founders. I remember the intense interest in Thomas Jefferson for instance and how quickly many are to point out that the founders were mostly slaveholders. Yes, they were. Certainly I would guess that a vast majority of the wealthy of the time likely were slaveholders. Does that invalidate all they did? The original draft of the declaration of independence held a paragraph admonishing the King of England for crimes against nature by bringing a people to sell as slaves into the colonies. It is reported that Thomas Jefferson was bitter about the removal of that paragraph for the rest of his life.
Why was the paragraph removed? For the benefit of having South Carolina and Georgia join in the declaration.
Slavery was also a point of debate in the drafting of the constitution. While many like to claim that people wanting to return to a strict interpretation of the constitution wish to count blacks as three fifths of a person, the truth of that “three-fifths” provision is a bit different. The southern slave states desperately wanted their slaves to count as 1 person each. The more people they had in the census, the more representatives and the more representatives, the stronger the voice the pro-slavery states would hold. What the text actually says is “whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. ” Free persons – doesn’t specify black or white. Yes, there were free blacks and the argument was thus: Free your slaves and they can count as a whole person for the purpose of representation, but if they are kept as slaves they will only count as 3/5 of a person.
Again, this was a compromise. Certainly the anti-slave states could have held their ground and denied any representation based on slave populations or even outright banned slavery from the outset, but had that been the case we likely wouldn’t have made it this far. The compromise was made because it was better than what we had before and it kept us together, united. Of course, the issue of slavery reared it’s head again for the country and tore it apart.
One of the things we forget is that our founders had disagreements, they didn’t just share the same ideas and act as one. There were disputes, there was anger, frustration. Just as today people didn’t just get along all the time in their political discussions.
These last few years I’ve been studying spanish. Unfortunately, I feel like this is a politically charged choice, or could be interpreted as such. The truth is our cable service had several spanish language channels, I had studied in High School and have always wanted to know more than one language. It has been with great sadness that I’ve seen all of the turmoil and terror that Mexico has experienced these last few years in their struggle with the drug cartels. It has been going on much longer than US media has reported and has been much more terrible than any of us in the United States can imagine. Yet, in watching the news on Mexico’s equivalent of independence day. I see such great national pride that it makes me wonder why we don’t seem to have that same love for the IDEA of our nation. I didn’t see someone come on and talk about all of the troubles going on, the mistakes that Mexico has made and how it was hard to be proud given the checkered past. NO! It was pure allegiance, pride at the GOOD that was their country.
Recent news has cited a study from Harvard essentially proposing a strong link between Fourth of July activities and Republican voting patterns. They essentially proposed that for politicians that were Democrats should see these festivities as a lose-lose proposition. Participation likely would not gain supporters and might even lose supporters.
Have our parties grown THAT far apart? Is that why there seems to be such a void of retrospective on our founding in the media today? If so, I am afraid our freedoms may be at more risk than any time in our past.
Our unity has in large part been thanks to our shared narrative. Whether or not it’s a partisan split, or a cultural split, we need to claim our SHARED heritage of freedom, liberty that our forefathers drafted for us. No they were not perfect, nor are we. They managed to overcome their imperfections and create something that is remarkable. Something that urges us to the higher ideals of humanity. Something to be proud of! Our founding fathers were not just white men. There were free black men, there were women. The tapestry of our founding is more complex than we have been taught in school. Unfortunately a few pages in a textbook talking about the Revolutionary War period is not enough to detail the complexities and diversity of participants in that struggle. What is liberating though is that this country gives us the freedom to grow beyond what we are taught and educate ourselves as Frederick Douglass and countless others dared to do. We can undertake such self education more easily today than ever before.
So, left and right, young and old, male and female, black, white and all spectrum of skin color, ALL who are citizens of these great United States of America: Please take the opportunity of this day to celebrate our Independence and to learn of our founding, to educate yourselves more and be proud and vigilant of our liberty! It is the most important legacy we can pass along to future generations.
A references that may interest you:
Writing the declaration of independence – from eyewitnesstohistory.com
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