Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
"America was not built on fear.
America was built on courage, on imagination,
and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand."
--Harry S. Truman
Every summer, Americans take a day off in July. Businesses and government offices are closed, people flock to the grocers and the warehouse stores and lay in supplies from a case of burgers to tents, sleeping bags, and the other accoutrements of camping. But whatever we do during the day, as the sun goes down through that universally warm and humid atmosphere, we gather in places great and small and wait with great anticipation for the night sky to explode in that cacophony of bright lights and booming sounds that are fireworks.
As far as I can tell, this custom was born on the long night of September 14, 1814. British gunboats, in an attempt to take Baltimore harbor, shelled the keystone of that harbor's defense, Ft. McHenry for 27 hours. When dawn broke on September 15, a huge American flag fluttered above the fort, stating without equivocation that it was still in American hands.
Out in the harbor on a truce ship, an American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the bombardment and that breathless moment when the site of the Stars and Stripes pierced the fog and smoke. Inspired, Key wrote the first words of a poem which would eventually become our national anthem. Since then, on the evening of July 4th, skies across our country have been lit up with fantastic displays, emulating that long bombardment. The thing I find most remarkable is that during that time, we all sit together without enmity and celebrate being Americans.
That transient moment of unity is, like so many other things, a facade. As soon as the fireworks stop and the lights come up, we will go back to just being us.
It's hard to imagine an era when Americans have been as deeply divided as now. I used to look at the example of other countries and opine, "Well, at least we're not shooting each other over politics." The assault at the baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia in June was (and let's be frank) a political act undertaken by someone who had been seduced by hateful speech. Was he crazy? He certainly wasn't in a good frame of mind. But there are a lot of others like him out there, balanced on the knife-edge between rationality and insanity who only need a bit of a nudge to fall on the side of violence.
Clearly, in the aftermath, there was a need to "tone down the rhetoric," to return some semblance of respectful discourse. But across social media, and increasingly in the words and tone of the powerful, the hate, instead of being ratcheted down, exploded. Some were glad the Congressmen were shot; others demanded that more of "them" should be gunned down. Horrified, I began to wonder if I had just witnessed the first shot of America's second -- and last -- Civil War.
"Some of us grew up in households, for example,
hearing that America is always right and never makes a mistake in the world.
Others of us grew up in families that were so critical of America
that the country was always described as a bully or an oppressor.
In both cases, if we want to grow up to be free,
we will have to unlearn the simple half-truths we were taught
and develop the discernment to decide for ourselves.
Always praising America is not patriotism. It is idolatry.
But always criticizing America is not patriotism, either. It is ingratitude.
The former is blind to America's faults;
the latter is blind to America's virtues."
The really sad part about that scenario is the certainty that the leader who took people over that cliff will only blame the Other Side.
“First, we are a nation of different races, nationalities, and ethnic groups.
This brings us to the second commonality… we are all Americans.
Yes, we fuss, we have differences of opinions, but we are all Americans.
The third and most important commonality is the fact that we all bleed red.
We are humankind.
These are the bonds that unite us and make us better human beings.”
--James Morris Robinson
We have a choice. We can continue to blindly follow people who are making millions of dollars to keep us angry at each other. Or, we can think independently. We can demand proof, real proof, for what we are told. We can think for ourselves; we can speak for ourselves; we can act for ourselves. Or perhaps more importantly, we can think, speak, and act for each other.
One of the most amazing thing about Americans is that we are at our core, a compassionate people. It is in our nature to drop what we are doing and lend a hand to someone in trouble. And that troubled person does not need to be another American. Whenever a disaster happens someplace on this planet, someone will park an empty semi trailer outside a WalMart or someplace similar, and Americans, most of whom are enduring financial struggles of their own, will fill that trailer with relief supplies. The government doesn't issue an order. We just do it. That compassion for each other, and for the rest of the world is common to Americans of all walks of life. It is one of the things that has defined us as a nation.
It is perhaps ironic that in these contentious times, the things that can unite us are those positives that have become second nature. Beyond compassion, there is confidence. We rarely believe anything is really impossible. We are creative. If we don't have to tools to address a problem, we just invent new ones. We are a courageous people, not just those in uniform, but those who undertake the social issues that need to be addressed. That willingness to stand tall and strong against the strong current of despair ensures that necessary change can be not just possible, but inevitable. None of us are native to this place. Those we call Native Americans are the descendents of those who came to this continent across the Bering land bridge. Our ancestors were all immigrants in the truest sense of the word. If we were to focus on those things, perhaps we could find that unity that has proven to be so elusive. But I think we have fallen in love with hating each other, and that dark emotion is, regrettably, what dominates our thinking.
Gene Scheer wrote a song for the Ken Burns documentary "The War" about World War II, and was given voice by Norah Jones. It was entitled "An American Anthem" and is a heartfelt expression of what is, or what should be important on the anniversary day of our country's birth. Listen to the song; read the words.
"All we've been given
By those who came before
The dream of a nation
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries
Have brought us to this day
What shall be our legacy?
What will our children say?
Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
I gave my best to you."
I hope that all of us take these words to heart, that we will choose unity over division; understanding and tolerance over judgement and hate. On this July 4th, let us give our best to America.