Sunday, July 05, 2015

Because America (no, really)

My younger sisters and their families came up to Washington to celebrate Independence Day this weekend. It's something I had come to take for granted in the years after college, something that was at best irrelevant to me and at worst an inconvenience (tourists on the Metro, traffic, loud noises from fireworks I couldn't see). But yesterday morning we all headed into our nation's capital in the pouring rain, hoping to see a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives.

A woman on the street told us the reading had been cancelled for security concerns. I hope that's not true, and I couldn't find anything in this morning's paper to confirm that. Nevertheless, the line to get into the National Archives wrapped around the building, so we worked our way over to the part of the Mall where the Folklife Festival would be starting in another hour or two.

We had forgotten about the National Independence Day Parade, which was starting from 7th & Constitution at 11:45. It takes a while to get a parade that size organized, so we walked among floats and bands and people inflating giant balloons. The rain backed off, and everyone seemed happy to be there. The bands had come from all over the country — it's an honor but it's also hugely expensive, and I wondered how many bake sales, car washes, wrapping paper drives, etc. had gone into those appearances.

In our neverending political cycle, we hear angry people talk about "taking this country back." As I walked past a float sponsored by the Sikhs of America, I wondered, not for the first time: back from whom? Back to what?

The Sikhs were walking the Smokey the Bear balloon, and a Vietnamese-American group was walking the giant American eagle. One float carried clowns (Coulro-Americans?) and another carried cloggers. A Chinese-American group marched behind a man on horseback, dressed as the Lone Ranger. The Salvation Army Band led things off, and the Society for Krishna Consciousness followed about half a mile behind. I've never felt so American in my life, so joyful to be part of this nutty country where we are bound not by genetics or heritage or history, but by belief — belief in the self-evident truth that all are created equal, endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Start with those, and the right to walk down Constitution Avenue holding a giant inflated orange lizard goes without saying.

This country has never been about "back" to anything. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would have mocked the idea of "returning" to anything. They set out to create something entirely new, and they expected that it would continue to evolve as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I empathize more than I want to with some of the people who talk about "taking the country back." Some of them have been friends of mine since high school or college. They did everything the way they were supposed to: they stepped up and took responsibility when they might not have wanted to, they went to school and applied for jobs and paid their taxes, and watched other people get chosen and promoted above them, including some they consider stupider, lazier and less qualified. Today's Republican Party offers them the fantasy of a time when they could reap the rewards of that struggle, but the ugly truth is that time never existed. The 1950s era of prosperity? Funded by the GI bill and VA housing loans, with a top income tax rate above 90%.

Growth and prosperity have always, always been driven by the people who bring something new to the party, who don’t do what they’re supposed to, who challenge received wisdom and are willing to take a risk. Some of those people were marching in yesterday's parade, and I was proud to be cheering them from the sidewalk.

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