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Saturday, July 4, 2009
A Selection of My Independence Day Thoughts

An article; a movie; reflections on an implication of tilting at windmills; why I read the Declaration of Independence and what I concluded; who is to blame; my personal civic activities; and a distant memory of celebrating July 4 in an empire that no longer exists.

Independence Day is very nearly over -- in less than an hour, in fact -- so my musings will add nothing whatsoever to your Independence Day. However, perhaps the old Christmas carol applies today, too, in which case, ahem, "It's not the things you do on [Independence Day], but the [Independence Day] things you do all year through." Thus emboldened, I proceed . . .

My informal Independence Day observance began yesterday and included my reading this excellent article by Peggy Noonan about history and one modern historian, and my watching most of A More Perfect Union on one of those BYU stations. My admiration of Peggy Noonan's writing and insight is well known to frequent readers here, and A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation has been a favorite since about 1989, when it was released.

Tilting at Windmills?

Also yesterday, as I noted in an earlier post, I attended Colonial Days in downtown Provo. The final section of singer M. Ryan Taylor's program, "American Revolutions," was about keeping the dream of freedom alive. Previous numbers and narrative were all from one period or other of American history, but the two songs in this final section were from Man of la Mancha, the Broadway musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. One piece was the title song; the other was "The Impossible Dream."

I love the musical and the music on their own merits. But for a moment I wondered if Taylor were suggesting in context that a love of freedom in our time is an "impossible dream," and that pursuing freedom now is like the mad mission of a addled old man who fancies himself a knight and jousts with windmills.

He was not suggesting that. But I know there are people around, watching what they consider to be United States' slide from freedom and responsibility into the tyranny of the nanny state, who feel that efforts to oppose the devolution are akin in their hopelessness to the quixotic project of tilting at windmills.

I am not one of these; I am not resigned to American tyranny.

Reading the Indictment

Most Americans -- I naively assume -- are more or less familiar with the first part and also the last lines of the Declaration of Independence -- respectively, those wonderful words about being endowed by the Creator with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and that final declaration in which the signers pledged to each other their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. We read the Declaration's indictment of King George much less frequently.

Strangely enough, when I sat down to read the entire Declaration yesterday, it was mostly to read the indictment, the list of complaints against King George III. This is a major part of the Declaration's justification for declaring independence from the British crown. I hadn't read that part in a long time.

Why did I read the famous document for the sake of its most boring part? Some of you may not like my motive. Others may not like my conclusion . . .

If one defines tyranny as the suppression of individual freedom and responsibility -- a reasonable definition, I think -- then it is hard not to see the last 80 years or so, and especially the last year, of American history as trending generally toward tyranny. There is a deadly trend away from rights which protect me from government interference with my freedoms and responsibilities, toward rights which somehow involve other people taking care of me -- my retirement, my medical care, my diet, my automobile, etc. It's a larger topic than I intend to indulge here, but my view is that the less free and responsible we are individually, the less fully human we are; this is why I call the trend deadly. Tyranny, including the soft tyranny of the welfare state, destroys that which is most admirably human within us. At some point in the decline, it becomes hard to distinguish between humans and cattle -- except that you can enjoy eating cattle. But I digress.

My motive today in reading the Declaration of Independence, especially its lengthy indictment of a king, was to compare the increasing tyranny of the American government to the tyranny against which the American colonies finally rebelled. (This is the motive some of you will not like, because you will think I am being merely partisan.)

According to the Declaration, King George III was guilty of a host of evils, including these:

  • refusing to pass needed laws, unless the colonists would relinquish their right of representation in the legislature ("a right estimable to them and formidable to tyrants only");
  • dissolving colonial legislatures, then refusing for extended periods to reconstitute them;
  • blocking immigration;
  • making judges dependent on him alone for their tenure and their salaries;
  • "erect[ing] a multitude of New Offices, and [sending] hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance" -- actually, this sounds familiar as a description of wanton government expansion;
  • quartering large bodies of troops among the people;
  • cutting off foreign trade;
  • "imposing Taxes on us without our Consent";
  • suspending the English right to trial by jury;
  • "plunder[ing] our seas, ravag[ing] our Coasts, burn[ing] our towns, and destroy[ing] the lives of our people";
  • sending mercenary armies to battle against us;
  • inciting foreigners and native Americans to fight against the colonies. (This is worse than apologizing to other nations.)

In terms of what government is in inflicting and proposes to inflict on Americans in our time, I concluded that things were a lot worse then than they are now. (This is the conclusion some of you will not appreciate.)

Who Is to Blame?

How could I think this? Allow me to explain.

If you accept that our burden of government-sponsored woes is increasing -- if you agree that the current trend is toward tyranny, as I have said -- then is it not perfectly logical to blame King B. Hussein Obama (as one wag calls him) as the principal architect of our troubles?

Forgive me for answering my own question, but . . . No. In fact, this makes little more sense than blaming "King George II," as some other people did when George W. Bush was president, and they thought we were leaping gleefully toward tyranny.

There's blame enough to go around. If I want to point fingers on the national level, President Obama is indeed a prime candidate, but so is Congress. (I don't mean every single Democrat, and I don't exclude Republicans, either. If the walking shoe fits . . .)

This leads us to a fundamental difference between our circumstances and the colonies' in 1776. They didn't elect King George; nor were they represented in Parliament. We -- collectively, not I individually -- elected President Obama and our absurdly provincial, irresponsible, and largely invertebrate Congress.

This means two things: First, we're not disenfranchised as our forefathers were, so the present tyranny is not as grievous. Second, plenty of the blame for current troubles falls squarely upon us, the people. To a large extent, during the campaign President Obama and his partisans were open about what they were selling. They didn't like it to be called socialism, and they would rather label it compassion than tyranny, but that's just labeling. They lied about cutting taxes, but they did everything short of waving their crossed fingers at the television cameras when they did so. They offered us free stuff from the government, and we bought it -- not because we thought no one would have to pay for it, but because we thought they would send the bill for our goodies to someone else. Socialism and tyranny sounded good to us, as long as they were called fairness, hope, freedom, and change.

So blame Congress; they deserve it. Blame the President; he deserves it too. But, Harry Truman to the contrary notwithstanding, the buck doesn't stop on the desk in the Oval Office. It stops with the people. Blame us above all.

If we're to blame, Independence Day seems like a good day to wonder, what are we going to do about our troubles?

My Civic Activities

What you should do about all this -- about our increasingly desperate need for good goverment -- is not for me to say. Every person is different; every circumstance is different. I can speak only for myself, and only for today.

At this point in my busy life, I engage in the following ongoing civic activities, in no particular order (in addition to voting, obeying the law, trying to raise my children to be decent citizens, and so forth):

  1. I blog. Yes, I enjoy writing -- not to mention opining -- and it helps keep my skills up. But I justify it, in the face of things I choose not to do in order to have time for blogging, as a civic activity. Especially at the local level, it seems there is insufficient discussion and information circulating to permit good government and good citizenship on an ongoing basis. This blog is my small, partial remedy for that dearth, and I hear enough feedback to know that it has occasionally made a difference, at least in American Fork.
  2. I support MFCC. I modify my own schedule and activities to accommodate her meetings and other work. I serve as a sanity check and a sounding board. I keep confidences. Sometimes I do needed staff work, since the City Council has no staff of its own. (Technically, the City staff reports to and works for the Mayor.) And, in case you're worried about such things, I generally do not tell her what to do as a member of the City Council. If I did, I wouldn't expect to have any more influence on her decisions than any other interested and reasonably well-informed constituent -- which is as it should be.
  3. I serve on American Fork's Neighborhood Preservation Committee, which used to be known as the Nuisance Abatement Committee. It's not glamorous, but somebody has to do it. It's making a difference, slowly but surely.
  4. I keep informed about local, state, and national issues to the very incomplete degree that having a life permits.
  5. I sometimes communicate my views to my elected representatives at one level of government or another on an issue of particular interest.

What does this have to do with Independence Day, apart from the fact that these happened to be some of my thoughts today? Just this: The argument for independence is freedom. Freedom and good government matter at every level, and I presently can best influence them locally.

None of this is heroism, of course, but one does what one can.

Finally, a Memory

I celebrated Independence Day 1987 in Moscow, Russia, the capital of the Soviet empire. Mikhail Gorbachev was in power then, but few people imagined how soon or how quickly the Iron Curtain would fall away. I spent a few minutes today remembering that celebration, which included some enthusiastic Russians. I wrote about it at length shortly after the fact, and twenty years later posted that essay here at the blog.

Once the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union dissolved, and democratic institutions arose in Russia, I think there were few people in the ecstatic West who foresaw how quickly the new freedom could slip away there. It's much diminished now, but I imagine there are still some Russians who would celebrate our Fourth of July with us, given the chance. Some of them probably still know the words to "Battle Hymn of the Republic," as they did then. Perhaps some other year . . .

Meanwhile, I hope you had a profound and delightful Independence Day.

David Rodeback comments (7/8/09):

I have reworded item two in my list of civic activities to improve clarity and to exclude a couple of possible misreadings. Since I was tinkering anyway, I added an additional bit of content there, too.

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