By Lana Turnbull
Forgive me Janis, I realize this isn’t exactly how you sang it. Celebrating the 4th of July, Independence Day, our day to embrace freedom, has gone the way of so many of our holidays. It’s often reduced to an excuse for another retail sale, to eat too many burgers and hot dogs, to bedeck the house with red, white and blue and to threaten the neighborhood with fireworks. I don’t mean to sound cynical, I love the traditions we practice surrounding the birthday of our nation. They make us feel patriotic and American and they’re fun. I just don’t want to lose sight of what we originally celebrated in all of the trappings of the day.
We celebrate the 4th of July because it was the day that the Continental Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was the beginning of the great experiment we call democracy. And it declared “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” It is the Constitution’s Bill of Rights that spells out specific freedoms in the Amendments, the first of which includes the rights of religion, speech, and the press, as well as the rights of assembly and petition. It is these rights I have on my mind this month.
We have greater freedom than any other nation on earth and what do we do with it? Often we squander the magnificent privilege of freedom of speech by assuming it means arguing disrespectfully with anyone who disagrees with our opinions about race, religion, politics, education, taxes, child rearing, animal rights, smoking, food and even soft drinks, for crying out loud. Every conversation becomes a debate, anyone with a different opinion an adversary. It’s no wonder nothing can get done in Washington, but we can’t just blame them. It can be hard to get through a PTO meeting these days without concerns that a brawl will break out.
I guess what I’m really getting to is a question. When did we become so polarized in our thinking that we can no longer disagree without being disagreeable? Several years ago a cousin of mine was taking a film class and she interviewed her grandmother, a beloved aunt of mine. When asked how the world had changed since she was young, my aunt replied, “People used to be kinder, more courteous, and gentler.” What a testament to her and the world she grew up in. I wonder how our children will describe the world of their youth when they reach senior status.
Freedom is an incredible privilege. I say privilege because it was hard fought, won and secured through the blood of many Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice so we can exercise it. Yes we have the right to express our opinions and to protest what we don’t support, but does that have to mean everything? Can’t we learn to speak to each other without shouting and listen to each other without dismissing. Isn’t freedom too precious to waste on trivial arguments about insignificant matters. Ask someone in Afghanistan or Syria or North Korea.
Freedom is not just another word. It is the foundation that our nation was built on. It is what sets us apart from other peoples. It is why so many around the world still want to come here to live. It is more than the right to disagree and infinitely more important than the excuse to be disagreeable. Let’s celebrate freedom this holiday and give it the respect it deserves. Let’s save it for the important things like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.