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Independence Day Reflections

July 4th, 2009 · 2 Comments


Once a friend from New England (who by the way was a strict Episcopalian who delighted in calling himself an Anglican to emphasize what an Anglophile he was) told me that the culinary thing to do on Independence day was to eat salmon and green peas, practicing a kind of symbolic cannibalism celebrating the American victory over the English Redcoats (also known as “lobsterbacks”). I’ve forgotten why green peas were part of the ritual, and have always wondered why it wasn’t lobster rather than salmon. Granted that lobster is much more expensive than salmon these days; but in colonial times lobster was the food of the common man in New England.

Whenever they play the National Anthem on Independence Day, I’m always reminded of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which, I think, would have been the anthem, but for the Southern States. One of the best versions is here.

Since I moved to Washington, DC in the 1970s and watched fireworks at various local sites and on The Mall, amidst very diverse and cosmopolitan crowds, I keep thinking of the United States as the Empire (at least an informal commercial one), and as an Empire receding with the passing of the twentieth century and the development of a multi-polar world. Though some may find this change alarming, I think it is good for the United States. It is not good for a Republic to be at the heart of an Empire, or for Democracy at home to be dependent on authoritarianism and hierarchy abroad. And, it is not “American.” Not in line with “the better angels of our nature,” or with our belief in equality.

Independence day always makes me think about the meaning of “freedom.” Many Americans take a very narrow view of it, covered basically by “leave me alone,” and “don’t tread on me.” But as one moves through American history, freedom has become intertwined with equality, since extreme inequality means the absence of anything but formal freedom for the very unfortunate, and the very poor. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four freedoms included freedom from want and freedom from fear, and after the Second World War the United States made great progress toward achieving at least freedom from want for Americans. But that progress ended with the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and Richard Nixon’s policy of “benign neglect” for poor urban blacks. Since then the US has focused on narrower ideas of freedom, especially so-called “economic freedom,” too much of which, since markets are not self-regulating, always ends up meaning freedom for the increasingly few, and poverty-imposed economic constraints for the increasingly many.

This Independence Day, when I think about Freedom, I think it’s time for America to turn away from the preoccupations of the past 40 years and to turn once again to freedom from want and freedom from fear, and to seek America’s promise for these freedoms, and with progress towards them a greater measure of our other key national value — equality.

Today, the United States is moving rapidly away from Democracy and Open Society and toward Plutocracy, a state limiting real freedom to a few. We cannot allow that to happen. As Lincoln said on another July 4th, speaking of the dead at Gettysburg:

“ . . . It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Tags: Politics

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