Independence Day is my favorite three-day holiday when it is a three-day holiday.
What’s not to like? Warm weather, time off work (except for those who work for businesses that never close, public safety people, those putting on celebrations, and weekly newspaper editors and reporters), the first fruits and vegetables of summer, and other large and small ways to celebrate what Abraham Lincoln called the last best hope of Earth.
Of course, it’s not a three-day weekend this year. Since a Wednesday Independence Day makes out-of-town plans difficult, everyone from the Platteville area should be able to attend Wednesday’s events, particularly the Veterans Honor Roll dedication Wednesday at 10 a.m. (And given the forecast for Wednesday, I suggest you stay hydrated with an adult beverage from a local adult beverage provider.)
Independence Day celebrates our assertion of the Founding Fathers’ observation of our “inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone who came (or now comes) to this immigrant country by choice came here because they thought their lives would be better here, however they defined “better,” than wherever they left.
Blogger Tim Nerenz observed a year ago that that means we “Americans are the perfected DNA strand of rebelliousness. Each of us is the descendant of the brother who left the farm in the old country when his mom and dad and wimpy brother told him not to; the sister who ran away rather than marry the guy her parents had arranged for her; the freethinker who decided his fate would be his own, not decided by a distant power he could not name. How did you think we would turn out? … A self-owned person is ungovernable; and ungovernable is our natural state. Liberty is our birthright, and prosperity is its reward.”
We are the descendants of those who wanted better for themselves. We are also the descendants of those who settled arguments noisily, and occasionally violently (Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton). If Americans liked being told by those above them what to do, we’d still be a colony of Great Britain. The current state of our political discourse (ranging from the presidential race to the Grant County Board of Supervisors) makes you want to throw your TV out the nearest window, but political fractiousness certainly is not unique in our history. (The second of the statues in City Park comes to mind.)
I noted in this space Memorial Day weekend that those who died for their country (commemorated in the memorial fountain now surrounded by the Veterans Honor Roll statues) died for the things, great and small, that make up our way of life. Those named in the Veterans Honor Roll, and those whose names will go there in the future, served for those same things, whether they volunteered to serve, or got an invitation to serve in the mail from Uncle Sam.
Independence Day represents one of those great things. The concept that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” eventually became the Constitution, a document that, with the Bill of Rights, tells what government cannot do to its citizens. Those of us in the news media cite the First Amendment repeatedly — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” — but the First Amendment applies to everyone, whether or not you carry a reporter’s notebook with you.
The First Amendment does not absolve those who choose to express themselves from the consequences of that free expression. The First Amendment also doesn’t require someone to respect free expression that disagrees with that person’s. But if one thing stands out about the political disagreements of the past … well, fill in the number of months or years you prefer … it is the decreasing disrespect for contrary viewpoints. I’m not sure if that is the result of elected officials doing too much, or candidates promising too much or using scare tactics too often, or too much self-centeredness, or some other reason(s).
To disagree without being disagreeable doesn’t requiring ignoring or papering over differences. It doesn’t require, and should not mean, one side railroading the other. It requires personally choosing to argue the merits of the issues over personalities or feelings or labels.
Last Tuesday, the Platteville Common Council had several 7–0 votes, one 6–1 vote, two 5–2 votes, and one 4–3 vote. Aldermen argued for or against the proposals on which they were voting. And yet there was no name-calling, no accusations of hidden agendas, and no raised voices. Tuesday night’s Common Council meeting demonstrated how a democratic republic should work.
Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution — upon which every state Constitution, law, statute and ordinance in this country is based — were perfect documents. Both were written in an era in which the term “all men are created equal” applied only to white property-owning men. And yet the presence of those five words paved the eventual path to the elimination of slavery and the extension of full rights to non-white men and to women.
You may need evidence that America is really an exceptional place. I pass on a story from former Ambassador to Tanzania Mark Green (former state legislator and Congressman from Green Bay), who tells the story of an Independence Day celebration at the embassy in 2008, when Tanzania’s Minister for Home Affairs, a Georgetown University law school graduate, said, “What I would say to you tonight is simply this: we want to have what you have. We want to be who you are.”