Telling stories

Freeing Freedom

Posted by southwrite on July 4, 2014

Folding FlagIt’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day. For most, it’s the beginning of a long weekend and the first real getaway of the summer. (Unless you’re in retail and then commerce never stops for celebrating independence.)

Today, there’ll be many speeches – some heartfelt, many profoundly insincere. Quite a few will include the phrase “freedom isn’t free” and include a call to appreciate our men and women in uniform for their service.

In too many cases the implication is that freedom and its preservation is always about war and battle. Sometimes that’s the case, but usually not. Building a strong democracy is everyone’s responsibility, not just soldiers, sailors, airmen and the like.

And here we come to a hard truth that you won’t really hear much about in speeches today. I think to be a real citizen, as opposed to just a consumer, demands that we understand our country, its history and its ideals at a deeper level than just blind patriotism and cheering on the team.

Over time the United States has been recognized more for its inspiring words and ideals of freedom  than its actual implementation. At the beginning and throughout much of its history, freedom has been something reserved for the privileged few –white property owning men – and not the great mass of people. For some Americans who think about such things, it’s hard to reconcile the soaring language with the record of slavery, discrimination, crony capitalism and sometimes genocide.

1963_march_on_washingtonIt’s easy to get wrapped up in these faults and forget what truly makes America great. Born out of revolution, the U.S. has always had a great capacity and even desire to transform itself. These transformations have never been easy or peaceful, but the genius of the Founders was in creating a framework for change. From freeing the country from the evil of slavery to granting women the right to vote to expanding personal liberty in so many areas, American democracy has worked – even if not always quickly or well.

We should be proud of these accomplishments without giving in to blinding myths like American exceptionalism. The belief that the U.S. is somehow fundamentally different from other countries and chosen by God to spread our own particular brand of democracy and capitalism is one dear to the hearts of many people – and not just conservatives. For people in other countries it’s a head scratching idea given our country’s obvious faults.

It’s true that Americans have always been a people that liked to see themselves through the lens of high ideals rather than gritty reality.

Signing of DeclarationThe affection for myths started early. John Trumbull’s famous painting Declaration of Independence you see here is an idealized  vision that  never happened. In fact, all the signers – and the painting depicts some who didn’t sign — were never together in one room at the same time. The actual signing of the document took place over a period of weeks as the delegates came and went. The painting conveys the idea that the document came full blown from the mind of Jefferson and the delegates rose as one to sign it. That’s not the way it happened. The Declaration of Independence is a political compromise, just like much else in our nation’s history.

In one sense these myths are a blessing in that they call us to those higher ideals of liberty and remind of what we want to be. Even if we don’t always live up to them we are still empowered by the knowledge of what is right and from that knowledge comes the capacity for change – and for greatness.

One Response to “Freeing Freedom”

  1. tammyyoga said

    Nice piece, I appreciated the part about understanding our country not just participating in blind patriotism. Reminds me that I need to read more historical books. I did get out and register voters this morning. I am trying to be part of the process of creating a better country for our children to inhabit.

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