Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Independence Day

Independence Day, John Adams famously wrote to his wife, “ought to be commemorated ... by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” I doubt too many "solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty" will characterize the holiday this year, but there will certainly be plenty of "Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations." 

Whatever else, Independence Day is a day (the day, par excellence) for celebrating who we are as a society, a nation, and a national state.

Like all good things, social solidarity may be subject to distortion, deformation, and perversion. This is widely recognized especially in regard to that particularly modern form of social solidarity, nationalism. Modern nationalism may well be the most effective form of social solidarity actually available in the era of the modern nation-state.  But in the 20th century it also manifested itself in seriously distorted, deformed, and perverted forms and expression. 

In his latest book, The Second Mountain, David Brooks makes a somewhat artificial but still very helpful terminological distinction, between community and tribalism"Community," according to Brooks, 'is connection based on mutual affection. Tribalism, in the sense I'm using it here, is connection based on mutual hatred. Community is based on common humanity; tribalism on common foe. Tribalism is always erecting boundaries and creating friend/enemy distinctions."

That distinction can, I believe, be applied to every form of social solidarity - including nationalism. Every authentic form of social solidarity contains within it both elements, and it is the interplay of the two (and which becomes predominant and when) which is significant. In this it is not unlike the common saying about religion - that religion both brings out the best in people and the worst in people, that religion both brings people together and drives them apart.

We see this very much at work in our present predicament as a society, a nation, and a national state. .All the more reason then, on this Independence Day, to look back to the beginning. 

The Declaration of independence was an attempt to express a new national solidarity among 13 English-speaking, British Protestant colonies in North America. The longest part of the Declaration is a tribalist attempt to forge an new national identity by identifying a new enemy. That part of the Declaration - the part that begins The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states - sought to summon a new social solidarity in opposition to the rebellious colonists' British brethren across the Atlantic (who until then had been their fellow-countrymen). Historians may argue about the accuracy and fairness (and anti-Catholicism) of the accusations against George III's Government. What is clear, however, is that - even on this day - that is not the part of the Declaration that most inspires.

Rather, it is the uplifting, communitarian rhetoric  of the first one and one-half paragraphs that we are much more likely to hear and celebrate.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. 

Over the centuries, the Lockean language of the Declaration has been widened and appropriated by others to whom it did not originally apply - so much so that the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in New York City seemed to me at the time to be more an evocation of our diverse immigrant history than of that earlier colonial rebellion. 

Likewise, the language of individualist Lockeanism, while pathologically powerful for much of American history, has never been the whole story. The Declaration itself, after all, was written in the plural and professed "a decent respect" for pre-existing social bonds. The civic nationalism which tamed and transformed the competing ethnic nationalisms of immigrant communities created new and more expansive communal bonds which, while never quite strong enough to eradicate Lockean individualism, did produce a coexisting alternative in a more complex lived experience for the nation and made permanently available a coherent communitarian critique.

So, by all means, let us celebrate tomorrow together - complete with all of John Adams' "Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations," and, better yet, not neglecting "solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty."

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