Emotional Health · Politics

Celebrating Independence Day in a Divided Nation

Editor’s Note:

Originally posted two years ago, on July 4th, 2018, we are re-publishing Cecilia Ford’s sobering essay, “Celebrating Independence Day in a Divided Nation” as it implores us to reflect on “what America stands for,” “what are American values,” and “what does it mean to be an American citizen” — questions that are equally relevant today as our nation is embroiled in another tumultuous, but defining moment. 

 

The fourth of July is usually a lighthearted holiday. Fireworks and barbecues abound as leisurely three or four-day weekends allow us to unwind with family and friends. Rarely is there much discussion of the meaning of the occasion, for it has been clear: we celebrate freedom and independence. These two values, once universally agreed upon, bind us together as a nation.

This year, it no longer seems clear that we all agree upon what America stands for. A consensus about what it means to be a citizen and how those values are upheld is in question. The population is deeply divided about such fundamental issues as freedom of the press, inclusion, healthcare rights, voting rights, gun control and more.

While we celebrate, are we honoring the same country? While some people fear that the democratic process itself is threatened, others see us as more independent and stronger than ever. As families gather this week, many of these topics and their underlying ideas are as incendiary as the pyrotechnics we display to embrace them.

Values are the ideas and standards that sustain groups, families, and nations. Often they are implicit and largely unspoken. For centuries we have not wondered why people sought to emigrate here. The United States offered democracy, freedom, and opportunity for all. In reality this was just an ideal, and many minority groups have historically been denied access to equal opportunity. But this did not stop millions of immigrants from dreaming that they could overcome the obstacles in their way. Any many, many did, among them most of your forebears and mine.

And whatever the obstacles, here, things were better. The Irish and Jews who emigrated in the late 19th century did not find much welcome, but they were escaping pogroms and famine. Things were better here, and persecution, while not unknown, was not the law of the land. As The New York Times’ Paul Krugman writes, though we are powerful, “Our role in the world was always about more than money and guns. It was also about ideals: America stood for something larger than itself — for freedom, human rights and the rule of law as universal principles.”

These past few weeks, we have been stunned to see some of those ideals turned on their heads as migrant parents and children were separated at the border. This is not the country that these people risked everything to come to. This is not the country that our grandparents and great-grandparents arrived in.

How are values formed, and more important, how are they transformed or even lost? On the most basic level, it begins with character, a sense of guiding moral purpose. But even the strongest among us cannot survive without family and then community. As families, communities, and other support systems have weakened or been disbanded, what it means to be a person of character has become less clear, and less agreed upon.

How did admirable American change from a person of faith, charity, and humility into Gordon Gekko, the billionaire investor character in Wall Street who famously declared “Greed is good?”

Startling changes took place by the 1980s when that movie appeared and our brightest young people started to explicitly say their ambition in life was to be rich.

A few years ago I reread Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Published in the early 1960s, it tells about a horrific crime involving a peaceful Nebraska family of four who were slaughtered by two drifters. The perpetrators got away with just a few dollars, and the public was shocked by the random, arbitrary nature of their crime.

Two things struck me about how much the world has changed since then. First, while some types of crime have gone down, random crimes, such as serial killings, have exploded. Criminals are no longer desperados who need money. They  now come in all stripes: besides serial killers, we have terrorists, school shooters, child kidnappers, revenge killers and white collar criminals, too.

Corporations share the blame for the decline in our values. A second telling part of Capote’s story involves the victim, Herb Clutter’s insurance company. The day he died, a Friday, he had met with an agent and taken out a large life insurance policy. Because the check was not deposited over the weekend, the company was not obligated to honor the policy. But they did.

Can you imagine such a thing happening now, when corporations fight tooth and nail for every dollar, every time? Desperately ill people have to battle insurance companies for necessary treatments. Many firms have an explicit strategy that reasons if it is hard enough to get the coverage you have paid for, at least some percentage of customers will be too confused or discouraged to fight for it. And they will profit.

Wall Street itself has “led” the way in some of the general decline in American values. Despite the Goldman Sachs chief’s defense that “corporations are people, too,” they don’t seem to care about people other than themselves. The financial meltdown of 2008, in which millions of people worldwide lost their savings, was triggered by the greed of financial players who crossed the line with dodgy schemes to enrich themselves.

Financial markets roared back to life with taxpayer support, and they are healthier than ever, but no closer to sharing the wealth. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left squabbling about what America stands for in a moral vacuum.

As we think about American values this week, remember that it starts with the individual, with character. People of character seek like-minded others, and invest not just in their families, but their communities and their nation. They care enough about the underlying moral concepts that guide them to action.

Even if that action is as simple as voting, don’t think it doesn’t matter. America is an idea that needs the support of its citizens to survive. Decide what America you want to live in.  Then take action to sustain it.

 

 

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  • Patricia. Moscatello July 4, 2020 at 11:58 am

    Amazing that it was written 2 years ago. It is even more relevant now!
    Thank you for re -post. I will share it with others.

    Reply