A Grain of Saul: Why I really don’t care if you can name all of the Founding Fathers
Each time Independence Day rolls around, there’s a cynical sentiment that comes with it, suggesting that Americans might not even know what they’re celebrating. YouTube videos of people not being able to explain the history of Independence Day and polls that show teenagers think we declared independence from France tell us that we are increasingly removed from our once-beloved history.
Back when we actually declared our independence, the newly born Americans celebrated the holiday by going outside and staging fake funerals for King George III, walking in parades, dancing at concerts and firing cannons and muskets. It’s not so different today, with large groups of Americans fleeing to beaches, lakes and rivers, lighting off fireworks, eating hamburgers and hot dogs, drinking beer and enjoying outdoor music.
And though the celebrations may not be exactly the same, I think freedom and independence are still two deeply important and awesome things to celebrate. I also think it’s worth noting the privileges that so many Americans have, privileges that millions of people in other countries are unable to exercise.
This year, I spent my Fourth of July weekend with friends floating down a river with a beer in my hand. We made a bonfire at a campsite and cooked burgers, kayaked in a river and listened to music. On the actual Fourth of July, I ordered Thai food at my apartment and wrote this column, then promptly got rained on during an attempt to watch fireworks in New York City.
I asked my girlfriend, a 23-year-old woman living in the Big Apple, her favorite thing about America, and she said it was oftentimes her safety, that — for the most part — she can walk around freely and not be scared for her life. She also acknowledged that in a place like New York, she gets to experience an America that has earned the title of being a melting pot.
My dad said his favorite thing about America was that there’s so many people making an effort to be tolerant of everyone else.
Famous professional wrestler John Cena shared a similar sentiment in a recent Upworthy video, reminding viewers that 51 percent of the U.S. population is female, 54 million Americans are Latinos, 40 million are senior citizens, 27 million live with disabilities, 18 million are Asians, and 9 million are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. He also noted that 3.5 million Americans are Muslim: more than three times the amount of people currently serving in our military (and, of course, there’s overlap).
It is for all of us, then, that some of the most famous words from the Declaration of Independence are still most important: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That statement is also a reminder of the progress America had to make, and still must. Even the biggest patriot will admit the contradiction of our founding fathers owning slaves at the same time they wrote those very words, and we are not yet done.
But it is with these words that America was formed; a text promising all Americans inalienable rights to life, to freedom, and to an afternoon where you do whatever you want to make yourself happy, whether it means celebrating our nation by lighting off fireworks and eating hot dogs in the sun or going to synagogue.
When I see some of my friends celebrating the Fourth of July around a barbecue, some watching television, and some, yes, drinking themselves stupid, I don’t see detached Americans removed from their history. I see some of what’s best about America. I see people doing whatever they feel like doing to enjoy an afternoon off from work, a day of leisure to pursue happiness and life and exercise the freedoms we are still so lucky to have.
Celebrating our independence from a king that reigned more than two centuries ago should now be about celebrating the freedom to be us. To be you. No matter our supposed divisions, America is a place where you can find a home for yourself. You can follow the God you choose; you can love the person you want; you can use a day off of work to float down a river and drink a beer without being bothered. As we move into the middle of our third century of freedom, we should do our best to live up to our powerful story of independence in our own way.
Stand up, be proud to exercise those inalienable rights to pursue happiness and life and liberty, but also exercise the ones that came with them: freedom of religion, of press, of speech. The freedom to ask questions and be critical. Celebrate that you can call your President an idiot without going to jail, that you can read a book or surf the Internet without being told what you’re allowed to see. Celebrate, if you like, with a beer and a barbecue.
Unlike Veterans Day or Memorial Day, this holiday isn’t about the military; it’s about all of us. Americans from north to south, the ones who fight in wars and the ones who oppose them, the owner of each McDonald’s and the workers inside, every American who has given and continues to give parts of themselves to this country and our collective promise to be free and fight for the freedom of those around us.
I’m proud to call you my neighbors, and I was delighted to watch you all soak in the holiday, regardless of how you chose to celebrate it.