We just celebrated the 236th birthday of the United States of America. Across this great nation, the night sky lit with fireworks, as originally instructed by John Adams in a letter to his wife just prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence:
[Independence Day] ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with… illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
Last night, I went to view the fireworks from a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor with several of my Navy buddies. As I spent those few minutes deeply immersed in a connection with history, I could not help but reflect on our current state of affairs as a nation. And so, I am compelled to write this article on a serious matter of state:
Our ability to communicate as citizens of one of the greatest countries on earth is being severely challenged.
Gone are the days when turning on the evening news guaranteed a virtually unbiased view of current events. Objective reporting has gone by the wayside, with the national media appealing to our passions, emotions, and anger by fueling our pre-existing biases and leanings, often under the guise of “fair” reporting. While this is a great marketing strategy, it does little to promote the ability of our citizens to work in concert to address the problems of our generation.
We now live in an era where the loudest person is rewarded, where facts are replaced with emotion, where logic gives way to passion. Congressional polarization is quickly approaching its worst level in the history of the United States, including the post-Civil War era! The most fundamental responsibility of the government – to pass a budget on time – has not been met in the last three years. Yet, as tempting as it is to point the finger at our politicians, we as citizens are just as guilty for that polarization. We blame each other for the wrongs of the world. We hold steadfast to our personal views. We refuse to compromise.
The rise of social media has brought into our lives a flurry of Facebook posts, Twitter updates, and YouTube video messages. Our ability to think for ourselves has all-too-often been reduced to hitting “share” on an oversimplification of political realities, perhaps out of fear of having our own beliefs challenged. We have all become pundits of our own, often passing on the one-liners of others rather than thinking for ourselves. Nowadays, I frequently hear someone regurgitating a particular talking point as heard on television, without considering the bigger picture. We are being conditioned to think in two dimensions: liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, or worse… subversive vs. patriot. But in reality, our human nature – and politics itself – is multidimensional.
As Americans, we live in the most culturally and ethnically diverse nation on earth. No other country of this size can claim to have such a diverse demographic. And yet, as a nation, we have forged the unlikely success of the world’s largest economy through the spirit of cooperation.
Our great country was built on teamwork, on the ideal that people from all walks of life with absolutely nothing in common can come together and participate in the same grand pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Our great country was built on the principle that as a whole, our value is greater than the sum of our parts – that nothing is impossible when we work together. So what does it mean to be an American? It is our acceptance of the obligation to do just that – to acknowledge that we have the right and the responsibility to shape the course of this nation alongside our fellow brothers and sisters regardless of our differences.
The West was uncovered by Lewis and Clark. Human flight began with Orville and Wilbur Wright. Our Republic is governed by state and federal policies. As a nation, our pioneering spirit, our sense of discovery, and our modus operandi is to work together in balance to get things done.
When the King of England abused our rights, we united in the face of tyranny. When Pearl Harbor was attacked during World War II, we united against the global threat of dictatorial imperialism. When the attacks of September 11th occurred, we united to confront our vulnerability to terrorism. We have seen time and time again that as a nation, we can overcome the toughest of odds when we work together. But must it take a disaster for us to stand united?
The Framers of our Constitution certainly did not agree on everything. In fact, with all the challenges they faced, we really have little to complain with regard to our problems now. But you know what? They still worked together. They realized the dire need to cooperate, to dialogue, and to make concessions for the sake of the greater good and their common survival. Thanks to them, we can have this discussion now.
No doubt, we live in a culture that thrives on individuality, on the promise that we can build a better world for ourselves if we simply worked hard enough. Although this mindset inspired our Founding Fathers to build a country “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the key word here is PEOPLE.
Our Constitution begins with these three great words: “We the People.”
…not “We the Individuals (Who Think We’re Better Than Our Neighbor).”
Yet, we incessantly voice the discontent of how “our country is going down the wrong path,” or “if only this didn’t happen, all would be well.” Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this. As times grow tougher, the voices of the extremes are becoming ever more extreme. We must remember that a harmonious society is not one based solely on the survival of the loudest. It is one based on the people’s ability to work together.
We must say to ourselves: “What benefits others, also benefits me.” This does not imply giving up our individuality. It is merely accepting that we can preserve our own individuality while respecting and supporting those of others. If you don’t believe this, just ask any athlete who plays a team sport. As with baseball, basketball, football, or soccer, what benefits the team also benefits the player. Even in a “free market” system, it ain’t all just about the individual.
We often hear the phrase, “freedom is not free,” and that our countless brave men and women in uniform throughout history have given the ultimate sacrifice to protect our liberties and freedoms. Those statements have become so trite that they have almost become trivial one-liners, so I would like to take them one step further. Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen – a multicultural military force comprised of many nationalities and even citizenships – have died not just for our supposed freedoms; they have died for our common future. Sure, we may disagree on the foreign policy decisions of our Presidents or on the proper use of military power. But one thing is undeniable: Our service men and women swore an oath to defend our Constitution and the ideals contained therein – not to any individual person or mission. They gave up their own future for the sake of ours – not for their own benefit. They died in the hopes of preserving our potential and influence as a nation – not for any partisan, political, or ideological gain. Whether or not we feel a particular mission was morally or politically justified is beside the point. The bottom line is: Someone had the intention to give his or her life for our collective future, so how do we live ours so that we can be worthy of that sacrifice? Politics and justification aside, how do we return that level of devotion and service? It is up to you and I to continue the American tradition of cooperation, or else we risk losing the future that the generations before us had hoped to preserve.
Patriotism is not merely a steadfast loyalty to our country, but rather an undying commitment to help our fellow citizens fulfill their piece of the American Dream – regardless of how we wish to define our own version of the “American Dream.” There is no act of patriotism more profound, more uniquely American than the commitment to work together against all odds.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman waited anxiously outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia for the final result of the deliberations. When the delegates emerged, she asked, “Well… what have a we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”
Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it!”
While guns may give us short-term protection and guard us against physical tyranny, the single greatest and most effective long-term weapon against intolerance and injustice is your human intellect. Guard it. Protect it. Use it. Never let anyone take it away! The most prized possession of despots in history has been the ignorance of the masses, so always research the facts yourself and come to your own conclusions. As Thomas Jefferson acknowledged in a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey:
If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.
Do not let biased television or radio pundits take away your most valuable possession as an American – your ability to think critically. It may require more effort on our part to research the facts, but that is exactly the work that is required for us to live up to Benjamin Franklin’s challenge to keep our Republic. It is not enough to vote. We all must be well educated and informed about the issues at hand. To be well-informed is an obligation that we all have for our Constitution, regardless of our professions.
So the next time you visit a vending machine, pause for a second. Take a look at the quarter in your palm and reflect on those three powerful Latin words inscribed upon it:
E PLURIBUS UNUM
(OUT OF MANY, ONE)
Regardless of where you stand on the hot-button issues of religion, foreign policy, health care, abortion, marriage, or taxes, remember this: You are an American. And you are as different to your fellow citizens who disagree with you as they are to you.
So I challenge you. Find someone on your Facebook friends list who may disagree with you, whether it be politics, religion, or even what flavor of ice cream tastes better. Reach out to him or her. Grab lunch together, go out for some coffee, or simply start a conversation on Facebook. Why? Because it is patriotic to do so. I am proud to be an American. I am proud to be one of many, in a country where out of many, there is but one.
As the 2012 Presidential election season kicks into high gear, our tasks at hand become all the more urgent. Let us discuss, rather than alienate. Let us acknowledge and conquer our own misgivings, rather than only noticing those of others. Let us unite, rather than divide.
In support of this mission, as did our Founding Fathers, let us “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
E pluribus unum.