From Thomas Sowell:
What Are We Celebrating?
There was a time when the Fourth of July meant something more than a three-day weekend. Speeches, writings and commemorative ceremonies reminded us of the origins and greatness of America. No matter where in the world our ancestors came from, we today are almost invariably better off because they came to America.
Independence Day signified much more than one country announcing its independence from another on July 4, 1776. It represented a new form of government — freer and more accountable to its own people than the monarchies common around the world for centuries.
What happened in America did not stay in America. The example of freedom inspired other peoples in other lands. As a famous poem put it, it was America’s “embattled farmers,” fighting for their own freedom and independence, who “fired the shot heard round the world.”
There was no question then that the United States was “exceptional,” however much the smug elites of today — including our President — try to dismiss the idea. Because self-government on such a large scale was a unique experiment, the founders of the American republic were very much aware that it had its dangers. Thomas Jefferson warned that “eternal vigilance” was the price of liberty. Even generations later, Abraham Lincoln expressed his fervent hope that “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The survival of freedom was not something he took for granted.
Today, too many Americans take freedom for granted, as just another entitlement, something that does not require them to take any personal responsibility.
It is painful to watch people on the streets — or on college campuses — being interviewed by TV reporters who ask them elementary questions about the people and institutions that run the country, and see how uninformed they are. And how unconcerned about their own gross ignorance.
People like that are the natural prey of political demagogues, of which there has never been a shortage. We see the consequences in ever expanding arbitrary powers of government. Just last week, a U.S. Attorney threatened prosecution of anyone who made “inflammatory” statements about Muslim boys accused of raping a 5-year-old girl.
Surely that Justice Department official knew that the courts were not likely to violate people’s right to free speech. But the real threat was to drag people through expensive and time-consuming legal processes that could disrupt their lives completely.
Such high-handed use of government powers has become increasingly common during the Obama administration. But an apathetic and uninformed public voted him a second term.
That is not the “eternal vigilance” required to preserve freedom. It is the widespread apathy and gullibility which accepts the coming of tyranny on the instalment plan.
Earlier generations of Americans fought and died to preserve freedom. Today’s generation cannot spare time from their selfies and twitters to think about such things. Neither the past nor the future seems to weigh on their minds.
A generation that owes so much to the past acts as if they owe nothing to anybody. Their idea of freedom is exemption from laws or obligations.
What many conceive of as freedom today is much more like anarchy: Who are the police to tell them what they cannot do?
But anarchy does not mean freedom. It means that people “become the slaves of ruffians.” What was said in 19th century Britain remains painfully true in too many crime-ridden neighborhoods in 21st century America.
The orgy of anti-police rhetoric in the wake of riots in Ferguson, Missouri and in Baltimore has already been followed by a sudden surge in violence, including murders, as police pull back or get pulled back. Innocent people have paid with their lives for such self-indulgences by demagogues and the media.
Freedom is not free. It requires, at a minimum, maturity and a sense of the realities of life. No society of human beings has ever been perfect. But we need only think of whatever person we love most and ask: Is that person perfect?
Is a country that is not perfect nevertheless deserving of our respect, our gratitude or our love? The Fourth of July is a good day to ponder that question.
From Charles C.W. Cooke:
Today is my son’s first Independence Day.
He doesn’t know that, of course, because he’s only three-and-a-half months old. But my wife and I do, and we’ve attempted to mark the occasion nevertheless — in loco filius, if you will. As such, Jack will be dressed today in a special onesie (stylized picture of a milk bottle, “Come and Take It” tagline); he will wear his Old Glory sun hat; and he will be involved in all the festivities that the family has to offer. Naturally, none of this will make even the slightest bit of sense to him; as a matter of fact, today will be the same as is any other day in the life of a baby, just with more people around and a surfeit of BBQ. But you have to start somewhere, right?
Because Jack is three months old, it is acceptable for his parents to treat July Fourth as an excuse for the purchase of kitsch. But what about after that? What about when he is five? Or twelve? Or nineteen? As a native Brit, I am accustomed to the self-deprecating instincts that are the hallmark of British society, and I am acquainted, too, with the reflexive aversion to patriotism that is all-too customary in the birthplace of Western liberty. In consequence, I know that if I were to leave my son befuddled by America’s Independence Day proceedings, he would probably stay that way in perpetuity. And that would be a tremendous, unconscionable shame — a shame that, frankly, would reflect poorly on me.
Once they reach a certain age, we expect our children to know what is what. As soon as they start speaking, we begin to teach them right and wrong; once they are old enough to be trusted with responsibility, we monitor closely how it is being used; and, in a process that is hopefully never-ending, we make sure that they know as much about the world around them as they are capable of taking in. It is in pursuit of this lattermost goal that we designate national holidays. In May, we celebrate Memorial Day, lest we forget what we owe our ancestors. In January, we observe Martin Luther King Day, that we might bring to mind the most uncomfortable parts of our nation’s past. And on July Fourth we arrange an ostentatious display of patriotism, in resounding commemoration of the moment that a ragtag bunch of philosopher-king rebels set their revolutionary ideals before a candid world, and changed human history forever.
In certain quarters it is fashionable to disdain these occasions, and, in so doing, to treat the past as if it were wholly disconnected from the present. Indeed, staunch defenders of the American Founding are often told that to embrace modernity it is necessarily to jettison the antique. “Why,” it is asked, “do we celebrate these flawed men and their pieces of parchment? After all, John Adams couldn’t even have imagined Tinder.”
Though narrow, this critique is indisputably correct. John Adams could not have imagined Tinder, and I daresay that he had no conception of high-frequency trading, of synthetic fibers, or of advanced robots either. But, ultimately, that is irrelevant. The beauty of the American Founding was not that it provided a detailed roadmap that could predict the minutiae of the future in glorious perpetuity, but that it laid out for all people a set of timeless and universal ideals, the veracity and applicability of which are contingent upon neither the transient mood of the mob nor the present state of technology. Among those ideals are that “all men are created equal,” and that they “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”; that “Governments are instituted among Men” in order to “secure” their “rights”; that legitimate power derives “from the consent of the governed”; and that if any such government is seized or corrupted by tyrants, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” At times, the United States has failed disastrously to live up to these principles, and, on at least one occasion, significant forces within the union have rejected them outright. But that an ideal has been violated in no way undermines its value, and it seems patently obvious to me that the country has been blessed by having had an eloquent North star to which its downtrodden could point from their moments of need.
If July Fourth is to represent anything concrete, it should serve as a golden opportunity to ensure that that star does not wither or implode or disappear from public view. In Britain — a less propositional nation in which the constitution is uncodified, in which there are no indisputably “foundational” documents, and in which there are no widely celebrated national days of meaning — it can be difficult to convey the importance of core national values, whatever those may be. Americans, by contrast, have fallen heir to an embarrassment of riches. If I cannot explain to my son how lucky he is to have been born here — and if I cannot demonstrate what a heavy responsibility it is to keep the candle burning — I do not deserve to be called “Dad.”
In a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison outlined the didactic justification for the construction of the Bill of Rights. “Political truths declared in that solemn manner,” Madison proposed, tend to “acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion.” Such benefits are not limited to the Bill of Rights. Just as Americans will proudly cite the first ten Amendments in the course of defending the ordered liberty that is the birthright of all free men, so they are prone to cite the most explosive literature of the revolutionary era. If internalized and cherished, Abraham Lincoln argued, the Declaration of Independence would have the salutary effect of acting as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression,” for Jefferson’s work was not “a merely revolutionary document” but the embalming of “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.”
Yes, even to three-month-olds. Come and take it.