What's Tony Thinking

America — Beacon or Fortress?


Particularly since 9/11 professional sports has been drafting on patriotic sentiment. Wrapping the flag, the military, and sports all up together has been good for business.

It used to be that you would have the National Anthem at the start of a ball game, then “Play Ball!” But now it’s also military color guards, “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch, and salutes to veterans. At football games you get the unfurling of gigantic flags by men and women in uniform and military fly-overs.

We like all this. It makes us feel good.

We don’t like it when someone, say an African-American football player, reminds us that it isn’t all so simple. Sometimes our own patriotic values and ideals call our behavior into question.

The 4th of July isn’t really an occasion for national self-congratulation, but for national self-examination.

In that spirit, here’s a modest alternative way of expressing patriotism and celebrating the 4th. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read it out loud.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yes, “All people” (or human beings) are created equal” would be preferable, but there’s something to be said for respecting the original text of historical documents.

The idea that all people are created equal remains a remarkable assertion. Equal. No one intrinsically “better than.” No one “less than.” This is the true American populism. Aaron Copeland’s famous “Symphony of the Common Man,” gives it such soaring and majestic expression.

Though this original populism was never perfect (it did not include women or African-Americans), it was an ideal that guided and challenged us, one that led to reforms.

Today, we have travelled far from this American populism. Traveled to a world of the extreme wealthy and then the rest. To a world, in Trump’s framing, “winners” and “losers.” To a populism more rooted in fear than in hope.

Notice too that the Declaration does not say that the assertion of human equality and inalienable rights applies only to citizens of the United States. This is a bold and universal assertion, over against the rigid social stratifications of Europe and previous history. It includes all people.

That conviction is the basis of America’s commitment to universal human rights. “All” are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Trump’s doctrine of “America First” undermines this commitment. Instead of America as a beacon, we become America as fortress.

We are, to shift to Biblical wisdom, hiding our light under a bushel basket (or a wall).

Others will of course derive different interpretations from an exercise like reading and pondering the Declaration of Independence together in a group. That’s okay. In fact, it’s good. How often do we ponder our first principles and discuss them? Answer: not often.

No we prefer to rise and “honor America” by singing “God Bless America” and applauding aged men in uniform. Just don’t let any of the ball players raise a question about how America today squares with its professed values.


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