Fourth of July, 2021

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Two years ago, on the Fourth of July, I wrote:

[…] it’s extra difficult this year because I don’t see a path from here to a country that is closer to my aspirations for it. What I think were our national aspirations. I’m not despairing—just because I don’t see a path doesn’t mean there isn’t one—but neither am I hopeful. Frankly, I’m terrified. And that’s not how I like to spend my Fourth of July.

So, two years later. We had a more-or-less peaceful election and transfer of power—no, not entirely peaceful, shockingly violent in fact, but we the violence was not nationwide and didn’t descend to civil war. And we have a President who appears to believe in the rule of law and the legitimacy of government officials he doesn’t like. Am I less terrified?

Honestly… yes. Less terrified. Still scared. Still very scared. But not quite as scared.

But that path from here to a country that is closer to my aspirations for it? Do I think that the great experiment of participatory self-government has a future here? Do I have faith in the continuing democratization of the people, and their increased capacity for self-government?

Well. I don’t not believe. But I feel my continued belief is, like my belief in the Divine Creator, not so much an analysis of evidence as a combination of stubbornness and the recognition that belief makes me happier than unbelief. And, frankly, patriotism.

I often use the line that the difference between Patriotism and Nationalism is that patriotism is like the way I love my siblings—I am proud of their virtues, cranky about their flaws, and feel that their achievements reflect well on me somehow—while Nationalism is like believing that my siblings are intrinsically better, inherently more important, fundamentally more valuable than other people’s siblings. I do care more about my siblings than other people’s siblings, of course. I expect other people to care more about their siblings than about mine. That seems to me both natural and laudable.

There’s a bit in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen when Heisenberg says that “it would be another easy mistake to make, to think that one loved one's country less because it happened to be in the wrong”. His country is Germany, under the Nazis—and he wrenchingly talks about what may happen to all the things he loves, the places and the people—all the hearts that speak to my heart—if the Nazis lose. I certainly don’t think that the United States is comparable to Nazi Germany, but I have that same almost desperate love for a country that happens, quite often, to be in the wrong.

And even more than I love this country I happen to have been born in, I love its aspirations. I love all that stuff we have never lived up to—the belief that Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are inalienable rights of everyone equally; that Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the all the governed; that a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires a people to explain themselves and their actions. Our desire to have been conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men—honey, I mean all men—are created equal. That it is our obligation to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations; that government can and should be of the people, by the people, and for the people. And even that we have every right to dream heroic dreams—and certainly that if there have to be walls, the walls should have doors, and the doors should be open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

Our nation has never been our aspirations; I know that. And yet, our nation, for all its terrible acts and intentions, has always kept one foot, maybe only one toe, on the path towards those aspirations. And maybe that’s all we get. Maybe that’s all we should expect to get, ever, and maybe that’s what we still have: some of the country, maybe most of it, at least wants to keep a path open to national aspirations that are more than prosperity and power, even if most of us can’t quite bring ourselves to step forward on that path. If that’s true—and I hope that it might be true—maybe that’s enough to celebrate another Independence Day.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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