It would be nice to be able to say that July Fourth this year is the same as any other. Same barbecues, same fireworks. Sadly, amid the celebration, more than smoke hangs in the air.
Disunity sits like a thick fog. Our civic discourse has turned acrid. Our culture is stained. It is hard to know if the divisiveness we’re experiencing is less toxic than it seems, or worse than we imagine.
What is clear is that commonly accepted norms are being eroded and disregarded. What reasonable people can agree upon is suddenly under attack and disputed.
Our own president calls into question fundamental tenets we hold to be self-evident. The gas-lighting flash of the distracting lie, the bang of insult told in 140 characters – that is our new normal. When Donald Trump unleashes a sexist Twitter tirade against a cable TV anchor, it is beneath the dignity of the office – and beneath contempt.
When reasonable people sat in Philadelphia 241 years ago and declared that they were no longer going to be subject to authoritarian rule – in their case, of an unstable and possibly manic-depressive monarch – July Fourth became not just a date, but a concept: We should be free not just from tyranny from abroad, but free from the tyranny of mob rule and manipulation.
Thomas Jefferson, inspired by enlightenment thinkers and emboldened by fellow revolutionaries, wrote one of the most inspiring documents in the history of civilization. In 1789, an even greater document emerged, the U.S. Constitution, nurtured by Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Adams and other courageous thinkers who saw not only their own evanescent moment, but a great nation to come.
Now, we have a president who delights in whipping up digital mobs, and publicly debasing those who serve him, who winks and nods at Russia’s interference in our most sacred institution, free elections.
Now we have a majority in Congress that kowtows to the whims of a man who is veering dangerously close to being an autocrat and drafts life-threatening laws in secret.
Now – though we are more educated and better connected, with more access to the world’s accumulated factual knowledge than any generation before us – whole swaths of us are high on cheap grievance or willingly blinded by disinformation.
On July 4, 1776, the founders weren’t lighting a firecracker to hear it explode and watch its flash. They lit a flame of freedom intended to light and guide the United States through all conceivable storms.
Institutions, public and private, emerged from that July Fourth, leading the world in democracy, the rule of law, education, science, agriculture, technology, arts, letters and ingenuity.
For most Americans, a unified country is desirable. On July Fourth, we take a day to celebrate what brings us together. We gather with family and friends, and can agree that that humid July 4, 1776, was the day we created an ideal we can all get behind, bound by our common humanity, as one people.
The flash-bang fireworks of the current Washington culture have distracted us, assaulted our bearings. We forget that we, the rest of the people, have always been more reasonable than not, and more alike than different.
Institutions that are under attack have stabilized us before. We can come to our senses.
May this July Fourth be one in which we aspire again to the Founding Fathers’ vision, and rededicate our efforts to clear the smoke.