Ted Anthony, AP National Writer, Published July 03 2012
Essay: In divided era, what does July 4th mean?SMITHTOWN, N.Y. — In the market for new designer eyewear this Independence Day? Look no further than Wize Eyes on Long Island. “So Proudly We Hail,” the chain advertised this week, “With Fashion Eyewear ... At Half The Price.”
Perhaps Competition Subaru of Smithtown's flag-themed “July 4th Blast of Savings SALES EVENT” is more up your alley this year. Or possibly you need some last-minute hot dogs for your Fourth of July cookout? Don't miss the Dietz & Watson “Grill-a-bration.”
Look around, and one truth seems kind of self-evident. If you arrived in America with entirely fresh eyes, it would be easy to conclude that the summer's day on which we celebrate our hard-won independence from England is merely a pause to blow up some colorful explosives, cook some meat over an open flame and get some good deals on major appliances. And, of course, drink beer.
But that can't be all there is. Can it?
In an era when everything from health care policy to immigration divides us more than it unites us, when the Internet allows us to tear apart our fellow Americans’ virtual throats from the comfort of our keyboards, what does a holiday like Independence Day mean? Is commercialism the only thing that keeps us together? Does this tribal-feeling nation of niches and special interest groups and online communities still have much use for a holiday that, at its most elemental, celebrates the societal-level version of “Hey — I'm sick of you, so I'm leaving”?
After 11 score and 16 years, we certainly know how the routine goes.
We gather in our groups, with families and friends and neighbors, and we put politics aside. We cluster in community streets and sit upon community lawns to take in parades, then gaze up at the sky and see the bombs bursting in air and claim, for ourselves, some kind of collective proof that the flag is still there.
But how many of us (and it would be a fair point to suggest that even the very term “us” is a bit ridiculous in America these days) actually stop and think about our political lot on Independence Day? Cynical though the notion may be, it's hard to find a person who says, “Well, yes, actually, I do engage in discourse about the state of our republic with my fellow Americans between bites of potato salad.”
Independence Day can seem like a bubble, neither a unifier nor a divider. The American heroics discussed are yesterday's, not today's. Everything is torpid and summery and more about the pursuit of happiness than life and liberty. And in that way, it's about as American as you can get. It's about community in the micro — about getting together for the fireworks show, not about where our country is these days.
“It's a romantic idealism. We remember what we think America should be,” says Tricia Quinn, an architect and a political independent who lives in Orlando, Fla.
“My idealism is that on that day we agree we're a wonderful nation of open-minded democratic people who respect each other,” she says. “On Independence Day, we're trying to put aside our differences and hope that we all believe in the same thing, that we're playing from the same rule book.”
Rule book: an interesting term. Think about it for a moment. What do we celebrate Wednesday? A declaration of independence — a conception, really, rather than an actual birth. A decision that we will be a separate nation. But the work — most of the war to win it, and the compromises necessary to build it — was still ahead. Independence was asserted in 1776, but the rule book we're playing from, the Constitution, was still 11 years and countless casualties away.
It's the American instinct to celebrate the big, epic, unifying event rather than the tortuous process of give and take and, yes, rancor that followed. Is it possible that we should be celebrating the Constitution rather than the declaration — the house that Americans actually built rather than merely the idea to build the house?
“The Declaration is about our aspirations and the Constitution is about how we do it. And how we do it is messy and imperfect,” says Brian C. Mitchell, a longtime educator and historian who was, most recently, the president of Bucknell University.
“The Constitution is what precipitates and provokes debate,” Mitchell says, “But I think the Declaration is the right thing to celebrate. Because it's about who we want to be.”
He's an optimistic guy (yes, another American trait). Beyond the broad contours of our society, much of what puts us at odds is emphatically that — deep-rooted disagreements about precisely who we want to be. More government or less? More immigrants or fewer? More assertiveness in global participation or a drawback?
It's not as if we've always been a very united United States. We've fought bitterly with each other from the beginning, and of course there was the small matter of a civil war in the 19th century. But the increasing ability to self-sort — to create communities both geographic and virtual that effectively wall us off from Americans whose lot and values we don't really share — wreaks fresh havoc on the ability to get along with the next guy.
“As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics,” Bill Bishop writes in “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”
Analysis of roll-call votes in Congress tells us that Democrats and Republicans are farther apart than at any point in American history, says Mark Oleszek, a political scientist at Albright College in Reading, Pa. The jury's still out as to whether this is quantifiably true of the non-governing non-elites — the rest of us. But it certainly can feel that way, particularly when helped along by the amplification of increasingly histrionic media.
“Partisanship is as American as apple pie,” Oleszek says. “The word pragmatism is totally gone in American politics. And yet pragmatism is an American style, and by definition it requires consensus. ... When brinksmanship becomes the norm, you get a different kind of politics.”
In the end, on Independence Day, the scripted narrative tells us to remember the beginning of something great — the chance at being exceptional, at growing into the shining city on the hill that one of the earliest proto-Americans, John Winthrop, evoked.
You can question American exceptionalism all you want — and sometimes, there's a lot to shake your head about — but in the end Independence Day is revealed as something quite extraordinary: a holiday that celebrates an idea. Lots came of that idea, and lots of it was, and still is, very messy.
But for the only nation in the world that was built solely upon an idea, to take one day out of the year to celebrate that idea, maybe that isn't such a bad idea in itself — even if it unfolds amid the exuberant static of multiple Grill-a-brations and other capitalist outbursts.
The Declaration of Independence began with these words: “When in the course of human events ...” And whenever human events are at play, messiness prevails. The exceptional messiness that a single document produced, and the possibilities that followed and are still playing out: Those, in the end, are what we the people celebrate Wednesday. Cue the propane.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anthonyted
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