Living Life Well
By Jim Shere
What I like best about parades is that you can never know what’s going to come down the street next— a band, horses, antique cars, a clever float that friends had spent days assembling, firetrucks, a drill team, local celebrities waving from convertibles— and then there are all kinds of people lining the streets to wave back and applaud whatever it is that shows up. You may never know what’s going to come next, but you eagerly look forward to whatever it might be, along with the afternoon picnics on the lawns of parks, and the fireworks blooming later in the evening skies.
We celebrate Independence Day as a distinctly American experience, one that draws together the incredible diversity of our country into one people to celebrate the sovereignty of the people. At one time sovereignty had referred to the power of a sovereign— such as a monarch or a king— over the people ruled; however, the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by thirteen separate British colonies gave that sovereign power to all the people, through elected representatives such as those we send to Congress.
Our country was first named in that document, which begins with these words: “In Congress, July 4, 1776— The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America…” At the signing, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having replied to a comment by John Hancock that they must all hang together by saying “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” It was well understood by everyone present that failure to remain united in their effort for independence would lead, inevitably, to their execution.
The Declaration of Independence inspired many similar declarations of independence from monarchies in other countries, from the 1789 Declaration of the United Belgian States on through Europe and Latin America, and into Africa’s Liberia and Oceania’s New Zealand. Presidents from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama have referred to our legacy as a “shining city on a hill,” quoting John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to Puritans departing on their perilous sea journey to the New World: “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill— the eyes of all people are upon us.”
However, the many writings of those who fashioned our government show that that unanimity of vision was not easily reached, nor has it been easily maintained to this day. When asked what sort of government was being established, Ben Franklin famously replied “a republic— if you can keep it.” Keeping it has required a delicate yet dynamic balance of wants and needs among widely disparate people over the two and a half centuries since then— and especially now.
The best lessons are learned from nature. The murmuration of starlings that frequently fill the air above our fields never collide but instead form great undulating, susurrating clouds that continuously fold and unfold upon themselves, for each individual bird accounts for its neighbors. Herds of animals pouring across the land in stampede, and swarms of insects in the air will do the same— flowing, but never crashing. Even galaxies of stars are known to interpenetrate, slipping through and past one another undisturbed.
A farmer knows to harness two horses rather than one, for one will wander and need constant reining in while two know better than to crowd or pull away from one another, and will instead pull together in a straight course. Even the Original People, speaking a hundred different languages, are said to have lived here in harmony with nature, and with one another. I also understand how the many moving parts of my own body, the organs and the skeleton that supports them, the systems that circulate nutrition, blood and oxygen, and the nervous system that attends and guides and informs all these moving parts, all work together in much the same collaborative way to make me possible.
When I was young, the Pledge of Allegiance that we recited every schoolday morning did not yet include the phrase “under God” and our country’s motto was not “in God we trust” but e pluribus unum, meaning “out of the many: one.” These changes came about in the Fifties, in reaction to a fear of what was thought to be the atheistic Communist threat to the American way of life, and they signaled a sea change in our national character that rejects the reality of our rich plurality to embrace a superstitious, fundamentalist form of Christianity, edging toward a theocracy in defense against the idea of a dangerous stranger lingering outside.
The possibility of theocracy that lurks within our body politic threatens our forefathers’ vision of a democracy, and the distinct separation of church and state. The very first amendment to our Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” “We’re not, thank God, a theocracy,” wrote Kirsten Powers, “we are a secular, pluralistic country with a lot of people who believe a lot of different things.”
Those who claim we are a republic and not a democracy are dangerously disingenuous, and misinterpret these terms for their reasons. While our republic is not governed by an absolute democracy, in which every citizen personally votes on every issue before the government, ours is a representative democracy managed by every citizen through elected representatives by which means authority and responsibility is redistributed back throughout the voting public— and to not vote certainly shirks that responsibility and abandons that authority. Thus, it is said: we have the government that we deserve.
The menace outside the gate is not as dangerous as the cancer that lies in wait within— the cells that mutate, and then mutiny. There will always be political predators on constant watch to capitalize upon perceived vulnerabilities of the public, for personal gain; and then there are those others who are so easily seduced by their blandishments, along the lines of a Stockholm syndrome. These fans of autocrats see the comfort of protection— not the danger of domination— in a parade that would end not with the familiar, humble street sweeper, but with a dramatically chilling convoy of military might and soldiers marching on maneuver.
There are those who would be autocrats, that have slipped surreptitiously into the folds of our government. They would restrict our rights in the pretense to recover them, and they can be recognized and their rhetoric dismissed through critical thinking and responsible discussion— not with the reactive argument that only feeds their bluster. Know and take time to sense through how what they say seems and feels to you, and comprehend what you hear; and be deliberate when you speak up— for the heart can be steady when the mind is not.
To work together to gain a better understanding of the best way forward, to unite the States of America, we must maintain ongoing and respectful discussions among our many points of view. I’ve often said that my two eyes may see things differently, but together— when they do not get in the way of one another— they can see a dimension that no single eye is capable of seeing: depth. This, however, requires the willingness to communicate, to listen in order to hear and to speak responsibly and respectfully, avoiding the drama of contention in order to collaborate together toward a common goal.
This was our forefathers’ remarkable vision, and why they called us to be the United States of America— and we must keep it so.