July 4th 2007
war, it becomes all the more necessary for ordinary people to
keep alive the flame of peace, to maintain a commitment to
peace, and to continue the struggle against the ravages that war
inflicts on the body-politic and on the human psyche and spirit.”
Independence Day, July 4th, is once again upon the nation. Bands, parades, concerts, sporting events, recreational theme parks, fishing, sailing,– maybe just doing nothing other than “soaking up the rays” – will all feature in the day’s activities, along with picnics and, after nightfall, the grand fireworks displays..
“Independence” is one of those ideas that functions at both the macro-geopolitical level and at the individual level. At root it deals with the issue of self-rule or self-governance – in a word, self-reliance.
In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson published what has become his signature essay, “Self Reliance.” It was a time of intellectual ferment in the United States, especially in and around Boston where the Transcendentalists, among whom Emerson was a leading light, were concentrated. The previous century had seen the first fruits of Enlightenment thought move from theory to practice in the changes in the political relationship between those who governed and those who consented to be governed. With the independence of the former 13 British colonies secured by revolution, all that was needed to complete the macro transformation was to add symbols and mythic origins to stimulate a narrowly directed, highly emotive nationalism that took on a life and power of its own.
Two American myths were at work at the interface of the geopolitical promise of independence with the actual individual experience of independence. One involved the new waves of immigrants pressing through the Atlantic seaboard states deeper and deeper into the “New World”: the myth of the talented amateur “do-it-yourself” pioneer. The other was manifest destiny: not only are Americans entitled to take the land and develop it for their use, the settlers have an obligation to do so.
Thus a mere 70 years after the birth of the nation, all the threads for success seemed to flow together at the level of the individual. The effects of the new thinking were more and more evident as mid-century loomed. New scientific discoveries by Americans and Europeans rapidly become practical technological devices as the Industrial Revolution took full form. In the arts, especially poetry and literature, new forms and new subjects were explored and developed. Even religion, already “liberated” from its predestinarian Calvinistic straightjacket by the Universalists and the Unitarians, was moving in a more dynamic direction both in belief and in practice (the Second Great Awakening was in full swing). Intuition and insight assumed new prominence.
Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s protégé, championed this spirit of individual independence and self-reliance as a general maxim to be followed. But both men were wary of what one commentator on the period called “comfortable conformity,” the tendency to confine one’s thinking to the common-place happenings of day-to-day life. What makes the loss of intellectual “edge” pernicious is that it happens imperceptibly. Some individuals never even realize what has happened until it is too late and they are left to wonder about what might have been.
This seems to be where George W. Bush and the nation stand this Independence Day. There is still little-to-zero “edge” in official Washington to end the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdraw our troops, help finance reconstruction, and return full sovereignty to the Afghan and Iraqi people. President Bush’s strategy on Afghanistan and Iraq is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s on the old Soviet Union: the United States will outspend the enemy even if the U.S. goes into bankruptcy.
In retrospect, the president’s post-9/11 call to go to the malls and spend money – which he delivered almost as an admonition to the nation to return to “normalcy” – fell flat because it asked for nothing from the individual other than to return to “comfortable conformity.” Bush did nothing to challenge the soul and mind, the self-reliant inner person in every woman and man that is waiting for a worthy cause to which to respond. For only when the spirit rises above the ordinary, inner-directed focus of daily life does it encounter that sense of independence that comes from the knowledge that we do have the power to make a difference simply because we believe in ourselves. As Emerson put it at the beginning of his essay:
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true
for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is
genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the
universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the