Independence Day

I hope everyone had a good fourth of July. I spent most of mine working and being groggy, but at least got to catch up with old friends for an old-fashioned BBQ at the park (sadly, I missed out on the fireworks once my fatigue finally caught up with me).

I wish I had the time to reflect more on the day of this nation’s birth. As with most holidays, I find it strange how the original meaning and the emphasize on remembrance becomes eroded by time and modernity. Most of us are too busy to notice, let alone care, and these sorts of memorials are more like convenient mini-vacation than a break for contemplation.

Indeed, a good chunk of Americans don’t even know when their country was founded, which makes celebrating Independence Day seem a bit awkward to me. Among younger people under 30, only 30% could actually name the year in which we declared our independence. Around a quarter of Americans don’t even know which country we broke away from. I know polls should often be taken with a grain of salt, but the results are still disquieting to me. It makes me wonder how many people even know the details about the Declaration of Independence (it’s authors, drafts, composition, and so on). I don’t think it’s unreasonable to infer that not many do.

I’m not trying to beat the dead horse about Americans being stupid and all. I just find it perverse that people would know so little about the basic foundations of their own country. What’s most ironic is that, more often than not, it’s those Americans that claim to be the most patriotic and red-blooded that seem to know the least about the nation their so proud of. Sure, you can argue that you don’t have to be a scholar on American history and culture to love the country, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to have some sort of rudimentary knowledge about the nation they greatly love.

I wonder how many people from other industrialized countries know about the founding of their respective states. I think that’d be interesting to explore.

Going back to the main topic in question, I find the Declaration of Independence to be a fascinating document, and I recommend you all to read it and especially take account of t’s historical context – it was quite ahead of it’s time with regards to it’s expression and endorsement of republicanism, human and civil rights, law, and self-determination (including a right to revolution).  It is fascinating to read such a statement being made during a time when practically no other form of government existed besides some variation of monarchy or aristocracy (though to some European countries’ credit, there were gradual reforms already beginning to head into that direction).

While there are many aspects of it that remain questionable to modern-day readers  – the contradiction between it’s recognition of the equality of men and the practice of the institution of slavery; a bigoted reference to Native Americans; even questions of the sincerity of the Founding Fathers who drafted it – there’s no denying the documents influence as a defining statement of American values, particularly it’s most famous line – We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – which has come to be seen by many Americans, myself included, as a moral standard for which we should all strive.

Even barring the romanticizing and unrealistic idealism that characterizes our outlook on history, I’m still amazed and inspired by the intellectual, philosophical, and moral foundations of this country. The creation of an independent United States was not just an exercise in self-determination but a bold experiment in the creation of a just, free, and progressive society, one which transcended the partisan ties and polar political ideologies that characterize it today. The birth of America led to the creation of environment that facilitated freethinking, innovation, and deliberation. We became thereafter, and to this day, a laboratory for all sorts of ideas that spanned politics, science, philosophy, law, culture, and other human endeavors.

We are, of course, by no means a perfect country. The freedom that characterizes our society has never been infallible and un-threatened, nor have we always lived up to the higher ideals we claim to stand by. But that matters less than the fact that we’ve reaped untold benefits from the unlocking of human potential that comes with creating a free and just society. Since our declaration, we’ve often been characterized – by ourselves and others – as a nation on the move: constantly innovating, experimenting, and evolving. While that’s often led to a careless, even fatal, lack of appreciation of the lessons of history and restraint, it also means that we can always expect ourselves to press forward, overcome obstacles, and tap into the free-thinking political culture that the founders bestowed on us.

At a time when our nation is struggling with very real problems –  which have exposes the flaws of our political system and society, and have left us in midst of a collective existential crisis – – this lesson is as crucial as ever.

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