Thursday, July 05, 2012

4th of July away from home

Stephanie, an actor from New York City, wanted to go somewhere "American" for the 4th of July.  Here in Florence, there would be no fireworks -- we had some last week, but they were in honor of San Giovanni.  The 4th of July was just a typical Wednesday here.

The cast was game, and after our rehearsal concluded, many of the cast -- American, British, and Italian actors together -- walked across the city to check out the Hard Rock Cafe.  Doesn't get much more American than that.  Despite some wariness at paying 15 euro for a hamburger, we entered the place only to learn there was a long wait for a table.  We then walked to Via dell'Acqua, near the Bargello, to seek out a place called "The Diner" that served American-style diner food.  By the time we got there, however, it was closing up shop, and we all ended up at an osteria nearby, where we toasted Independence Day in the U.S. with chianti and beer.

Back home in the States, the common practices of the 4th of July include outdoor cooking, beer, parades, and fireworks.  There are requisite displays of patriotic fervor and pride.  And yet it has been my feeling for many years that I now live in a nation defined more by the 11th of September than the 4th of July.

The day is called Independence Day, and yet many of my countrymen become confused on the particulars of this anniversary.  Many associate it with the United States Constitution or think of it as the birthday of the country.

In fact, what happened on 4 July 1776 was the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the Continental Congress.  It was the formal declaration that the 13 colonies had seceded from the British Empire.

And while he was not an author of the Declaration, the very fact of this document and for popular support for independence in the colonies owes much to Thomas Paine, an advocate of republican politics whose wildly popular Common Sense ignited public debate about independence and moved popular opinion in that direction. 

The Declaration was not simply a list of colonial grievances against the empire.  It remains relevant as a powerful statement of human liberty, declaring a number of "self-evident" truths, including the idea that all humans are equal and possess "unalienable rights" as their birthright, including a right to revolt against tyranny.  The right of revolution remains a provocative idea to this very day: the idea that it is not only a right but a duty for a people to overthrow a government that acts against their interests.  This was the basis of the American Revolution, and yet the document's sentiment seems buried with that war.

According to historical sources, Jefferson's original draft pressed the matter of human rights even more strongly, criticizing the British Empire's slave trade despite the fact that Jefferson owned slaves himself.  This points to what may be the primary moral contradiction of the U.S.:  we are unparalleled in our eloquence on behalf of human liberty and self-determination, despite a history that includes military aggression, conquest and imperialism, slavery, and political inequality.

Even with the contradictions, the Declaration is a great document, and I still dream of a republic based on its principles.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can relate very well: it felt very odd to be in England--America's own imperial master, no less--on the 4th of July during graduate studies. I recall my second 4th distinctly: shivering in the Bodleian (it was 60F) and reading an 18th-century book on the Churches of England and Scotland.

Interestingly, the only times I've ever noticed any awareness of the 4th in the UK was in Northern Ireland (1997)--where they seem to adore Americans--and later on, in 2000 or 2001. It was as if the Brits finally decided to play up to the many Americans visiting there in the summer. (It was also the year that stores began to open for longer hours on Sundays too--another concession to American ways?)

I couldn't help but nod my head when reading your remarks on American double standards: ain't it so. Far too many Americans like to pretend that we live in a post-racial world--even the liberally inclined, it seems. Remarks like "lighten up, it's only a joke" or "why are minorities so overly politically correct" are perfect examples. I can't tell you how many times I've been told that any perception of unfairness on my part was "all in your imagination. People aren't racist anymore."

The fact is that there are double standards. We have one double standard in our very borders as minorities and increasingly, the middle classes and poor, do not benefit from the advantages of so-called good ol' fashioned American meritocracy. Meanwhile, we laugh at those "backwards countries" with their "banana republics"--even as we pervert the Horatio Alger myth in such a way that largely benefits only the upper middle classes and upper classes as in "Yes, we need to retain high CEO salaries and lower taxes on the rich because this is America and talent needs to be rewarded." What errant BS--as we've seen from the failures of Wall Street and the corporations (i.e., the auto industry) relative to their counterparts abroad.

Or consider our international policies abroad where time and time again, we've championed dictators who suit OUR corporate (1%) needs rather than those of the people being governed: even if we make welcoming noises about "democracy." Is this why there is such resentment against America, especially in the last half century?

What is sad is how far we have to travel before we attain any semblance of what was promised in our great Declaration.