On the 4th of July, we mark the Declaration of Independence. America’s independence seems assured. It’s the preamble to the Constitution that has me worried. It refers to the formation of a “more perfect Union.” Could the “union” feel any more dis-united than it does these days?
Those framers knew their language. They didn’t expect a perfect union, only a system for constant work toward an ultimately unattainable condition, namely perfection. As Vince Lombardi put it, only by pursuing perfection may we have the possibility of catching excellence. (For the life of me I never could get the dismal pledge of the D.C. Metro system when it started fixing burning tracks: “Back to Good.” They might as well have said, “Better than Lousy”).
Maybe it’s 24-hour, non-stop television, or (anti)social media. They fuel politicians’ far-out ideas and desire to slice one another to ribbons.
Thinking of my childhood 4ths of July, they don’t seem so different from now. In my hometown, a long morning parade featured local businesses, bands, floats, selectmen, Shriners — all the usual stuff. Fireworks concluded the 4th, and I believe they still do, some 50 years on. I used to take black -and-white pictures, and a local real estate firm would hang dozens of them in its storefront picture window. I would sell 8 x 10 glossies for $3 each.
I also recollect some parade features that would never happen today, and that’s a good thing. For example, the owner of a big Ford dealer would slather reddish paint or makeup over himself from head to toe, don an Indian feathered headdress and ride a horse, shouting “How!” to each side of the road. I can’t say what the man’s motivations were, but it felt wrong to me even in those days.
Where I live now, the town has parades, hometown holiday festivals, outdoor band performances. The only difference is, the crowds are far more diverse than in the town where I grew up. My hometown was (and still is) more than 90 percent white. We literally had one black family in a town of about 30,000. The dad was a judge, his daughter in my high school class. In those days, real estate sales people (and home sellers) could get away sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle racial line-drawing that’s rightly become illegal and rare.
By contrast, my own kids went to a well-regarded high school in Maryland where white kids might have been a plurality but not the majority. It never seemed remarkable to them. It shows what’s possible.
We have made progress as a nation. My theory is that the dividers and bigots are drawn to social media like metal shavings to a magnet. The results amplify divisions and disagreement, and worse.
The head custodian of the religious institution in which I have been involved for many years is from Peru. Several years ago, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. I obtained for him a flag that flew over the Capitol. At a large event, as a matter of fact on a 4th of July weekend — I was president of the organization at the time — I presented it to him. Everyone roared with approval. Adilio had tears in his eyes.
Another immigrant couple my wife and I become good friends with came here for a number of reasons, one of which is they adore American culture. When they became naturalized, I gave them a flag, too. It hangs prominently in their living room.
Is it political to say that many immigrants come for worthy reasons, and to become American? And that a certain percentage come for the wrong reasons? And that a nation needs a sound border and immigration law, coupled with policy that it backs up? I don’t know anyone personally of any political persuasion who thinks otherwise. So why can’t our politicians figure it out?
On the 4th of July, we celebrate unity of the nation. The Declaration established “self-evident” rights and pointed the way towards the Constitution, which undergirds a durable republic. That republic is way more diverse that it was. That clock doesn’t run backwards. But diverse shouldn’t mean disunited.