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AP Essay: In divided era, what does July 4th mean?
Wednesday - 7/4/2012, 9:16am EDT
By TED ANTHONY
AP National Writer
SMITHTOWN, N.Y. (AP) - In the market for new designer eyewear this Independence Day? Look no further than Wize Eyes on Long Island. "So Proudly We Hail," the chain advertised this week, "With Fashion Eyewear ... At Half The Price."
Perhaps Competition Subaru of Smithtown's flag-themed "July 4th Blast of Savings SALES EVENT" is more up your alley this year. Or possibly you need some last-minute hot dogs for your Fourth of July cookout? Don't miss the Dietz & Watson "Grill-a-bration."
Look around, and one truth seems kind of self-evident. If you arrived in America with entirely fresh eyes, it would be easy to conclude that the summer's day on which we celebrate our hard-won independence from England is merely a pause to blow up some colorful explosives, cook some meat over an open flame and get some good deals on major appliances. And, of course, drink beer.
But that can't be all there is. Can it?
In an era when everything from health care policy to immigration divides us more than it unites us, when the Internet allows us to tear apart our fellow Americans' virtual throats from the comfort of our keyboards, what does a holiday like Independence Day mean? Is commercialism the only thing that keeps us together? Does this tribal-feeling nation of niches and special interest groups and online communities still have much use for a holiday that, at its most elemental, celebrates the societal-level version of "Hey _ I'm sick of you, so I'm leaving"?
After 11 score and 16 years, we certainly know how the routine goes.
We gather in our groups, with families and friends and neighbors, and we put politics aside. We cluster in community streets and sit upon community lawns to take in parades, then gaze up at the sky and see the bombs bursting in air and claim, for ourselves, some kind of collective proof that the flag is still there.
But how many of us (and it would be a fair point to suggest that even the very term "us" is a bit ridiculous in America these days) actually stop and think about our political lot on Independence Day? Cynical though the notion may be, it's hard to find a person who says, "Well, yes, actually, I do engage in discourse about the state of our republic with my fellow Americans between bites of potato salad."
Independence Day can seem like a bubble, neither a unifier nor a divider. The American heroics discussed are yesterday's, not today's. Everything is torpid and summery and more about the pursuit of happiness than life and liberty. And in that way, it's about as American as you can get. It's about community in the micro _ about getting together for the fireworks show, not about where our country is these days.
"It's a romantic idealism. We remember what we think America should be," says Tricia Quinn, an architect and a political independent who lives in Orlando, Fla.
"My idealism is that on that day we agree we're a wonderful nation of open-minded democratic people who respect each other," she says. "On Independence Day, we're trying to put aside our differences and hope that we all believe in the same thing, that we're playing from the same rule book."
Rule book: an interesting term. Think about it for a moment. What do we celebrate Wednesday? A declaration of independence _ a conception, really, rather than an actual birth. A decision that we will be a separate nation. But the work _ most of the war to win it, and the compromises necessary to build it _ was still ahead. Independence was asserted in 1776, but the rule book we're playing from, the Constitution, was still 11 years and countless casualties away.
It's the American instinct to celebrate the big, epic, unifying event rather than the tortuous process of give and take and, yes, rancor that followed. Is it possible that we should be celebrating the Constitution rather than the declaration _ the house that Americans actually built rather than merely the idea to build the house?
"The Declaration is about our aspirations and the Constitution is about how we do it. And how we do it is messy and imperfect," says Brian C. Mitchell, a longtime educator and historian who was, most recently, the president of Bucknell University.
"The Constitution is what precipitates and provokes debate," Mitchell says, "But I think the Declaration is the right thing to celebrate. Because it's about who we want to be."