« Be Careful What You Wish For and Novel Constitutional Arguments | Main | Happy Fourth of July »

Monday, July 04, 2011

The meaning of the 4th of July

Like Tom, I enjoy the Fourth of July for the centrality of the prose and courage of the Declaration of Independence. As I wrote a few years ago, one of my favorite scenes from the HBO mini-series John Adams came immediately after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration and the camera panned the silent room to show the stunned faces of the delegates. Plus, there is the fact that this is the only holiday that we name this way (after all, we don't call Halloween "the 31st of October").

Today Mark Kleiman, citing Mark Twain, argues that we would benefit from reviving the practice of reading the Declaration as part of our celebrations (although he questions whether we should excise the more racist portions in the airing of grievances). I have attended only one such celebration--in Philadephia in 2001 (the country's 225th birthday) [Ed: My wife points out that a state park in Miami does a reading every year, although we never have attended].  Kleiman's concern is that "[u]nless there is a conscious and sustained effort to reaffirm the meanings of our customary observances, those meanings tend to be eroded away: as Christmas now means bad music, heavy food and the worship of material possessions, so the Fourth of July is now a celebration of beer and fireworks."

Or worse. This afternoon we attended the festivities in a small beach town in Delaware, which included tire and barrel races, a pie eating contest, rides on a fire-truck cherry picker, and a boat parade. At one point, the MC of the event said something to the effect of "While we're out here having fun, let's not forget what this day is really all about--honoring the men and women who serve our country and keep us free."


I may have been bothered that the source of this error was the person designated by the city government to preside over this celebration and even he had no clue. If official designees have no clue, it is hard to expect the public at large to do any better. It is telling that, having no idea, his default meaning was the military and the men and women who serve. I respect the military and those who serve. But I am not a fan of the way we fetishize military service so that every holiday and every discussion of our nation becomes about the military. The only military people this holiday might celebrate are George Washington, the Minutemen, and everyone else who fought 235 years ago.

This holiday is about a political and expressive act. And while the military was certainly necessary to effectuate and preserve that political act, the political has its own inherent value. Particularly when, at least on its face, the political and expressive act was grounded in highly theoretical and philosophical terms of consent of the governed, the law of nations, and the purposes of government, and human rights--all decidedly non-militaristic ideas. That act be honored and celebrated on those terms.


Posted by Howard Wasserman on July 4, 2011 at 03:18 PM in Howard Wasserman | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The meaning of the 4th of July:


Hear hear!

Posted by: GU | Jul 5, 2011 12:12:47 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.