It’s Independence Day Weekend. Most of us are spending the down time relaxing at the beach or getting one of those ‘honey-dos’ out of the way. A lot of us are pulling out some sort of red, white, and blue ensemble to wear to the family barbecue before we break out the sparklers for the little ones and then perhaps we find a good place to watch the local fireworks. That is, if we’re not actively engaged in trying to blow off our own fingers with the bargain pack from Bubba’s Fireworks Emporium. It’s what we do on the 4th of July. It’s tradition.
I can’t say it’s what the founding fathers did to commemorate Independence Day though. Actually, I can. They didn’t. It wasn’t until 1870 that the 4th of July was declared a holiday in the District of Columbia and it wasn’t a paid holiday until 1938. A lot of us assert with the voice of authority that we know what early Americans did and how they felt and even if it didn’t hold up under the scrutiny of historical fact, Wikipedia can be edited to prove it so! What we do know of most early Americans is that for them, patriotism was genuine. To be patriotic was not a celebration, but a way of life. It meant their literal survival. Signing that parchment in Philadelphia in July of 1776 meant publicly putting lives in jeopardy. The founding fathers united with each other, putting aside whatever difference they had about our fledgling nation: “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
Today, it’s too easy to pass off those potent words glibly or with pompous airs of affected patriotism. Our culture has lost the gravity of pledging one’s life, fortune, or honor. In 21st Century America, the precious few people who actually put their lives in the balance for another are limited to those in law enforcement, military, and firefighting. These men and women are our modern day heroes who quietly state with a smile and genuine humility that they’re simply doing their job. Unfortunately, some of them bear scars on their bodies and in their minds that are irreparable. We, as local communities and as a nation, regrettably don’t do enough to take care of our wounded warriors.
Putting one’s fortune on the line for the sake of a cause is something that is an utterly alien concept to the vast majority of Americans today. Money has become far more than a medium of exchange in the materialistic society that we live in. We place it in such high esteem that if a tax increase is proposed, the thin veneer of civility we have is gone and we resort to juvenile name calling, savage behavior, pointing fingers, and screaming incoherently. I find it odd that these people who shout threats to their elected officials don’t seem to mind that captains of industry are offshoring jobs while paying themselves obscenely large bonuses, wrecking corporations thought ‘too large to fail,’ and bringing down the economy with them. Ironic that we appear to have more confidence in corporations than our own government.
The concept of individual honor is antiquated to most of us, yet to those who signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, it was a foregone conclusion that putting pen to paper that day was the same as putting a bounty on their head and forfeiting one’s good name. It is well documented that many of them as well as their families suffered great loss for their bravery. This kind of sacrifice is something we can process mentally, but it is abstract in modern terms. That is, unless you’ve seen the war-torn streets of Iraq or Afghanistan up close and personal.
It is fair to say that many people equate patriotism today with red, white, and blue clothing, stickers, and décor and in the grand scheme of things, I really don’t have a problem with those who are enthusiastic about displaying the stars and stripes in whatever motif, although I think I’d draw the line at some sorts of red, white, and blue apparel that leave little or nothing to the imagination. I do think though, that we, as a modern culture, have lost the sense of what authentic patriotism is. Thomas Paine might label most of us as “sunshine patriots” because patriotism, at its core is selfless. We are indeed experiencing economic times that “try men’s souls” and rather than rise to the occasion, the word ‘sacrifice’ is not in most people’s vernacular and we indeed shrink from the service of our country.
It was 235 years ago today that the Declaration was signed by our founding fathers, by patriots. They held a lot of ideological opinions in the forming of the nation that is now America, but the things that made our country different from any other on the planet was that they came together, to be united. They were willing to sacrifice for one another, up to and including their very lives. In a word, they were selfless. The chapel doors at the US Naval Academy bear the inscription, non sibi sed patriae, which translates as “not for self, but for country.” Today, it is worth repeating those words because true patriotism is selfless.
The most visible example of patriotism I’ve ever seen wasn’t a bumper sticker, nor was it a t-shirt that had American regalia. It was a naval veteran named Bob Fant who had been captured by the North Vietnamese when his plane was shot down in 1968. He spent years in captivity enduring torture, malnutrition, and horrific abuse. I met him decades after his release. He was in civilian attire and a group of us navy aircrew were in our dress uniform during the morning colors ceremony. We had just finished SERE school, a course where we experienced simulated POW conditions for a mere week. As the flag was being raised, we dutifully saluted while the national anthem was played over the PA system. He held his hand over his heart and watched the flag. I caught the sunlight glint off of his face as a tear coursed down his face. Rarely have I seen people who had such genuine love for country, but that day, all the bravado that we aviators typically display fell away and I knew in an instant that while we can buy cheap patriotic-themed junk, the price to know genuine patriotism is high, indeed.
So, enjoy the barbecues, the fireworks, the smiles of friends, family, and loved ones, but beyond the day, may I respectfully recommend that you do something that affirms the ideals of what we, as Americans, are all about. It may be as simple as extending a word of thanks to a cop, firefighter, or serviceman for putting themselves out on the line. Maybe it’s engaging in some sort of volunteer work that makes a perfect stranger’s life just a bit better, but let your patriotism this July 4th be selfless. Let it be authentic. Make a positive difference.
This posting was originally published July 4, 2011. I've split my writing into different blogs: Opinion, The Leukemia Chronicles, and other Freelance Writing