Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day!

Marking the creation of our nation by putting off fireworks and eating hamburgers is pretty much the exact personification of the holiday as one would expect. If Americans are good at one thing, it's eating junk and blowing things up. (As an extra bonus, we're pretty much only blowing up Chinese stuff, something most current policymakers would classify as "practice.")

It sometimes may seem odd to other nations exactly what the fourth of July is all about. Most countries can't point to a day on the calendar and say "Yep. That did it." Most nations were cooked up in the myriad of roaming hoards of slowly evolving barbarians masked with overlapping religious cultures. There may be some dusty document to display in government museums declaring the founding of a nation, but the history reaches far back beyond the written word.

And other nations mostly look upon our system of government with...well, perhaps I'll just say "mystification." With a few exceptions, most countries are parliaments or dictatorships. This whole hybrid executive/legislative/judicial system we take for granted here in the US is (understandably) foreign to must, uh, foreigners.

And that, perhaps, is not a bad thing. Our Founding Fathers did a pretty good job of making sure that the government was constructed in such a way that 1) it could effectively deal with the most likely problems that could arise from a democracy; and 2) it wasn't too effective that the government grew to hold more power than the people. They did this by creating a host of checks and balances, so that each branch could become reasonably efficient in its role, but each branch would then crash into each other so no one got to run the show forever.

Before this starts sounding like a civics class, I'll just point it out--this system may at times seem like it's foolish and inefficient and unequal, but it was done that way on purpose. (Just imagine--the president can send 100,000 troops to a nation halfway across the world, but if the President tries to enact a moratorium on offshore oil drilling--well, see how far that gets you.) If you are a business or a civic organization, you want things to run smooth, maximize value, and grow to become bigger and better. Our Founding Fathers wanted none of that for our government--they wanted it to be clunky and cranky and all sorts of a hot mess--and for that I am thankful on this day.

Ronald Reagan called America a "shining city on a hill," a rather purple prose-ish thing to say. But old Ron couldn't help himself, and to be fair there's a bit of truth to it. Despite what the world thinks about America the nation--good or bad--America the idea is something all nations strive towards. The phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" may sound trite and overused, but it's certainly true, and a vast majority of the people in this world do not have such luxuries. For all of its history--from its early days to today--America has been a nation of destination for the world. Individuals choose to leave their nation and their homeland to come here. This is something remarkably unique in history.

Abraham Lincoln called America the world's "last, best hope." Liberty, the free market, and civil rights--these are the terminal conditions of mankind. America is exceptional in that it's been striving for these ideals as the pure foundation of its existence, and there is no nobler goal than that. If American cannot succeed at this, there is little hope for the human condition.

Remember this on this holiday weekend. Rather than the abstract concepts of revolutionary philosopher-statesmen, independence from tyranny was real, true, and an endlessly perpetual task. Our nation was founded on something bigger than our population, then or now. We must maintain the ideals of liberty for those who wish to take it away; this requires strength, determination, and a recognition of our failures as well as our successes. Defending liberty is not easy, but it is something that only America can accomplish as an example to the world. It is this burden that is also our reward.

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