Yesterday, in America, I was in line at my local post office, which is in itself the most American thing a person can do besides waiting in line at the DMV (or RMV, if that’s your poison), when I noticed an older woman ahead of me. She was wearing a t-shirt that was indiscriminately splattered with stars and stripes and red white and blue. The shirt was several sizes too big. The stripes were jagged and rock and roll, the stars draped over her shoulders like a mantle of hot dogs, country music, and patriotism, and the word “Amercan” written over the left breast. Yes, “Amercan.” Whole lot of [sic] here.
After this woman was done at the counter, she was on her way out when another lady in line stopped her. This lady was wearing a visor and a stylish tennis skirt with a polo, like Lilly Pulitzer and Ralph Lauren were her parents, and her quiet teenage son next to her must have fallen out of an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. She took one look at the shirt and said, “my that’s a lovely shirt. Where did you get it?”
I was confused. Clearly these two women had some aesthetic differences that neither were aware of.
The older lady mumbled something and started looking through her purse. The mother again said, “I love your shirt! Where is it from?”
This time, the older lady smiled and said, “Target. It was on sale because American was misspelled, but I don’t care. Gets the message across.”
The mother did a smile-and-nod and responded, “well, I think it’s amazing. Very patriotic! I love how it shows the flag. Don’t you think it’s a great shirt, Jimmy?” She elbowed her son who was doing everything he could to stand still and look cool. At this, the teenage Abercrombie model nodded vigorously and mumbled something about our country. His mother then wished the older lady a good Fourth of July, and then commented to her son that she “loves when people are so patriotic.”
I fear that between the internet, talking heads, mobile apps, terrible sound-byte politics, and advertisements, we are losing America in our flag and in notions of patriotism (which are not necessarily synonymous with freedom, representation, or liberty), and today of all days I wish to put down the symbols and pick up the words.
Today is not a day that we commemorate a battle, or the rise of a leader, or of a party, but a day that we celebrate the philosophical foundation of this country. Before you have a Washington, Gates, or Lafayette, you have Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston, and before them you have Locke, Montesquieu, and Blackstone. Before you have an all-out war over the future of a group of people, you have a philosophical discussion and justification. Before you have continental musketeers you had rebel pamphleteers. The roots of the Constitution are indeed in the people who took up arms against the oppression of their British leaders, but those arms did not act without ideas. Those Englishman and their friends and allies were acting from the impulse found in the Magna Carta, in Locke’s Treatises, and ultimately in the Declaration. Today is a commemoration of a group’s pursuit of dignity and equal treatment. It is a commemoration of the uniquely American ideas that led our country’s English forefathers to reject British rule.
Next to me as I write are three American ideas: a copy of Thoreau’s writings (so critical of authority that it probably should have been banned), E.B. White’s clippings from the New Yorker (a study in the quiet power of combining humor and truth during the reign of McCarthy), and a copy of the Declaration of Independence. While these things could theoretically arise anywhere in the world, where else could they safely be venerated publicly? What country could be so bold and beautiful as to teach such subversive distrust in literature and then openly embrace those works? Our country’s forefathers, before they bore arms, crafted arguments. And before the inkling of a nation was the English inkling of a rejection of dictatorial rule. That, my friends, is the United States of America that I celebrate not only this day but every day. Speaking truth to power, crafting argument, and drawing on earlier thought to construct a radical tomorrow. Today, I celebrate the historical interplay of idea and action and the benefits that have arisen from the merging of philosophy and activism.
As it is Independence Day, and as we both have grilled food to eat, fireworks to watch, and flags to wave, let me close with one more thought. This day is celebrated for the Declaration: a philosophical-political justification of revolution, and a call for change at the highest level. The Constitution was not a twinkling in anyone’s eye when the Declaration was signed. Our enshrined rights — speech, religion, guns, trials, etc. — take today to worship at the ancestral altar of their titanic forebears: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Pursue your happiness and preserve your life and liberty, ever remembering that if you tread on another’s life and liberty, they will push back. And the Declaration always takes the side of the person who pushes back.