The Glorious Fourth is a day to let ‘er rip, be as red-white-and-blue as you like, hang out the flag, join the parade, keep an eye on the sky where those fireworks are bursting in air. Start early: pop a Sousa into the sound system, turn up the volume (not too loudly out of respect for the neighbors) and eat breakfast in march tempo. Later there’ll be hot dogs and potato salad, ball games to watch and the evening festivities on the Mall on PBS. And, if there are kids of all ages around and grown-up guests, or just the two or one of you, read aloud — or repeat from memory — the opening paragraphs of the Declaration, up to the Bill of Particulars of the King’s “usurpations and abuses.” Cherish the sound of those words — “the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle us… unalienable rights…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…consent of the governed…laying its foundations on such principles…to guarantee their safety and happiness,” that last word used in the 18th century sense of “well-being.”
But on this particular 7/4/14 don’t deny the reality that insists on breaking in. We’re being dragged back into the chaos of the Middle East. We are engaged in a “war on terror” that places security over liberty with the uncritical and tacit consent of too many people. We’re told that we’re a superpower and a superpower can never retire, even if it must become a “snooperpower.” Is that the “separate and equal station” among nations that the Declaration referred to? On this day in 1981 Ronald Reagan declared that “putting people first has always been America’s secret weapon.” Tell that to Wall Street titans, hedge fund managers, multinational CEOs and the US Chamber of Commerce for whom profits over people has become a mantra. Here at home “We, the people” are losing that ongoing battle in all societies between wealth and commonwealth as inequality blooms, the middle class withers and the poor are still with us, their numbers growing.
How do we restore the sense that it’s still terrific to be American?
All true, but the Constitution set no religious or property qualifications for any Federal office, gave the power of the purse to the chamber elected directly by the people of the states, guaranteed to them a “republican form of government,” abolished hereditary aristocracy, proclaimed in its Preamble (conveniently ignored by the political and financial powers-that-be) that it was “We, the People” who ordained and established the Union, in order, among other aspirations, to “promote the general welfare.” That was new and dazzling in 1787 and it began to clear the ground for beginning the world anew, setting the pace for democratic revolutions that burst into being around the globe, and pushing Americans themselves to keep expanding the zone of freedom.
Think on these and of Paine’s sparkplug role. Then summon his spirit to remind yourself that we can, if we really care, pick up the broken thread of democratic zeal. We are not a people content with a yellow stripe down our backs. We know the difference between compromise and surrender of ideals. We are not of a nature to be contented with “the lesser of two evils.”
So on Friday supplement your reading of the Declaration of Independence with a passage or two chosen from Common Sense or Paine’s later work to rally the weary Continental armies, The Crisis. You might like to visit your local library, take out a copy and do likewise on our nation’s 238th birthday. And start fighting back!
Recognize that for all of us, these, too, are the times that try our souls. Be peacefully but persistently aggressive. Demand of your representatives at national, state and local levels: either they deliver their votes to break the Money Power or they don’t get yours. Nothing less will get their attention. This weekend and in the coming elections they will be showing up in person; find out when they will be where you live and turn up to challenge them. Don’t wait for some far-off organization to send you a petition. Get off the couch and picket their home offices. If you are ignored, or they protest that your defection will lead to their defeat, remind them of the advice of General Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox of Revolutionary fame: “We fight, get beat, rise and fight again.” That’s why the Constitution provides for frequent elections, new chances to turn opinion in your favor. And that’s why it ensures your right to be as demonstrative as it takes to be heard. Don’t leave it to others. Be as immovable on your side as the tea party is on theirs and don’t shrink when the corporate media and partisans on the cable channels and talk radio equate you with them as “extremists” and sing their love songs to “centrism.” Write to the editors of your newspapers or what is left of them, go see them, call on the heads of the networks and tell them to fire their carnival barkers for the one tenth of one percent who have bought our government, or at the very least open their pages and their mikes and cameras to genuine debate with bona fide reformers and radicals of many stripes.
Make your first absolute demand an amendment to strip corporations of their personhood, nothing less. The Supreme Court isn’t sacrosanct either; Congress can change its size and the scope of its jurisdiction. Remind your representatives and senators that Citizens United can be reversed.
Take direct action: it’s your right. Boycott restaurants that won’t pay minimum wages to their staffs the way the black citizens of Montgomery boycotted their segregated buses and won. Eat at home and put the money you save into the campaigns of candidates who take no corporate money and will vote for public financing of elections. Don’t wait for new parties to form, for organizations to draft platforms. Deny your dollars to food industry conglomerates that push sweet and fattening drinks on your kids. Make the Almighty Dollar your weapon instead of theirs.
Be as passionate and involved as those populists of the First Gilded Age who wrested hymns from their original context and gathered to sing battle songs against Mammon. Christianity began as a radical religion of the lower classes. Remember the Hebrew prophets of old: Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah and their poetic and pulsing cries for social justice. Speak out in your churches and congregations of whatever faith, or in your professional and social clubs. Be willing to work with others who disagree with you on social issues but recognize that inequality is an equal-offender crime; it poisons the lives of pro-choice and anti-choice, gay and straight, black, white and brown with cold impartiality. Parade, picket and protest wherever figures of power and authority gather to plan new devices of enrichment for the few at the expense of the many. If the police attempt to herd you into “protest zones” far from the action try the old radical but nonviolent tactic of refusing en masse and filling up the jails.
Off the wall? Too extreme? Our situation is extreme; this is no time for summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. Even a sensible billionaire like entrepreneur Nick Hanauer gets it. “The oldest and most important conflict in human societies,” he says, “is the battle over the concentration of wealth and power.” Of capitalism he writes:
It can be managed either to benefit the few in the near term or the many in the long term. The work of democracies is to bend it to the latter…We should never forget that, or forget that the United States of America and its middle class made us, rather than the other way around. Or we could sit back and do nothing, enjoy our yachts. And wait for the pitchforks.
The tea party gets its strength from the commitment of members who see themselves as fighting an oppressive government run by social engineers. They’ve got the right idea but the wrong villains and their successes only deliver us into the hands of government owned by robber barons. What we need this Independence Day is to take aim at that “long train of abuses and usurpations” visited on us by monied interests, invoking as the Declaration tells us, our right, our duty to “throw off such government and provide new guards for [our] security and well being.”
We haven’t come this far by crawling on our knees. Stand up – and reclaim the patriot’s dream.
Historian Bernard Weisberger and journalist Bill Moyers collaborated on the television series Report from Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century and In Search of the Constitution, among others.