Fireworks and Adlai Stevenson

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For Americans, the Fourth of July is that grand mid-summer holiday with hot dogs, picnics, parades and fireworks — and, if lucky, a three-day weekend.

As with most national holidays, we have an uncanny way of flattening the fourth of July, that is, limiting it to something festive or vacation-like, rather than looking at the challenges July 4th presents for us to be better Americans and accomplish the goals for which we declared independence from England.

Certainly, we should celebrate our historical victory over George III’s oppressive monarchy. Our success inspired other countries to depose tyrannical regimes and undertake their own democratic endeavors.

As our Declaration of Independence proclaims, we began this great experiment in the name of the “self-evident truths” that all persons are “created equal,” “endowed” with the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and that the purpose of a government is “to secure these rights.”

The authors of the declaration, we know, had a narrow view of who had unalienable rights — essentially white male freeholders and landowners. Subsequent generations steadily and painstakingly extended the declaration’s promises to
all Americans.

The declaration is a communitarian statement of principles; it’s not just about individuals. It’s a world view that the last line of the declaration emphasizes: “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

Yet, as a country, we are veering away from our community goals of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for everyone. We’re becoming ever more individualistic, and even selfish. A common question is “Why should I pay school taxes if I don’t have any children in school?” A democratic society thrives with an educated populace, and everyone benefits. But “what’s in it for me” has overpowered “what’s good for all of us.”

We see an appalling, ever-expanding mal-distribution of wealth in our society. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wealth, but any view of a decent society should entail sharing a respectable share of wealth through taxes and/or philanthropy.

For a county where a sizeable percentage of the population lays claim to an ethic based on the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, we are remarkably short on feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, healing the sick, paying just wages, narrowing the inequality between rich and poor, and pounding swords into ploughshares. And we have buried civil dialogue in a grave of acrimonious politics.

Few are the political, religious and moral leaders who call Americans to the task of building community so that all share in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Instead, we see teachers and education under attack and maligned by highly paid commentators. Balancing the budget by short-sheeting education only exacerbates social stratification and denies equal opportunity to lower-income and educationally-challenged youth.

Nor do we use Independence Day to take stock of workers’ rights and how we might better protect them so that they also share in the pursuit of happiness. Balancing the budget by un-employing people is not a pursuit of happiness.

On this Fourth of July, let’s celebrate, but also examine where we are as a nation and recommit ourselves to our ideals. As Adlai Stevenson, put it, “Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

— James C. Harrington is Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and adjunct professor of law at UT