People are always surprised that I’m lukewarm about the Fourth of July. For the first twenty years of my life in tights, I usually wound up somewhere reciting the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, but in more recent years I have ignored the big day the way Jefferson tended to ignore Christmas. This year I’ll be landing at London Heathrow on July 4th, and I’ll spend that evening at the reconstructed Globe Theater watching Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with the person I love most in the world, my 22 year old daughter, occasionally the guest host of the Jefferson Hour.
When people ask me what is the best way to celebrate the Fourth of July, I’m always a grim puritan and a downer. I say, have a discussion with your friends and family about the status of liberty in the United States. Talk about your aspirations for American civilization, what would restore us as the template of freedom, due process, enlightenment, and the pursuit of happiness in the world. Take turns reading, and discussing, the preamble and the peroration of the Declaration of Independence. You can see why I tend to spend the Fourth of July alone. Even my closest friends, after hearing this buzz-kill litany, are likely to quote Sir Toby Belch to the joyless Malvolio in Twelfth Night: Does thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
The Fourth of July is now to America what Saturnailia was to ancient Rome: a day (now a weekend) of excess, misrule, irresponsible antics, Roman Candle duels, gorging, drunkenness, lawbreaking, and sunburn. Don’t get me wrong. I like five consequetive bratwursts as much as the next fellow, and twenty-two beers, and Jet Ski jousting, and late night swaying and high fiving renditions of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, followed by “I love you man…” and passing out on the beach. But I always remember, about when the rednecks are shouting that the Second Amendment is the most important of them all, and sneaking firecrackers down each other’s swim trunks, that Mr. Jefferson told us that the price of liberty is actually eternal vigilance and mastery of the political dynamics of the republic. Personally I have found it hard to be vigilant after five gin and tonics, my cousin’s patented Vesuvius Nachos, four Smores, and twos flagons of box wine beside a Great Plains lake at 97 degrees and the wind gusting to twenty four miles per hour.
I’ve had some great wild and crazy Fourths of July: at Lake Tahoe, at Yellowstone National Park, on the Missouri River in the middle of nowhere, at a place called Lake Tschida in western North Dakota, at my grandparents farm in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
This year, at a time when Europe is enduring a nihilist Islamic terrorist attack about every five weeks, flying to London on the Fourth of July may be as good a declaration of freedom as anything one might do. My mother has asked me to reconsider spending days in London at this particular juncture—she is of course infinitely more concerned with the safety of my daughter than with mine—I have had second and third thoughts about the trip. But you know, the cliché is right: if we stop living our lives in the ways that make us thrive, the terrorists win. Western Civilization has spent three thousand years working out the kinks of tribalism, creed, ideology, nationalism, militarism, racism, sexism, and ethnic discrimination. Since the Berlin Wall went down we have seen more international harmony (in the West) than at any previous moment in human history, more mobility, fewer border restraints, more pan-European harmony and constructive engagement.
I’m deeply saddened by Brexit, by the hardening of borders, by the new anxieties, suspicions, and even profiling. Donald Trump was elected here as much by our growing anxiety about Islamic terrorism as by any other electoral dynamic. I do not want us to move towards a more restricted concept of civilization, and we must fight our urge to become Fortress America.
So I’m going. My daughter, who is rightly nervous, is meeting me, and if we die watching one of Shakespeare’s most exquisite comedies, that will be a statement about the tenacity of human freedom. Besides, I’ve been reading the Oxford-educated Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus. In this remarkably important book, Harari says if you lie in the First World you are dramatically more likely to die now of type two diabetes or obesity than of a terrorist act.
To all of you, whether you spend the Fourth of July sipping Bordeaux and talking about Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, or guzzling beer upside down through a funnel on the back of a pontoon, I do join citizen Greenwood in saying, God Bless the USA—as well as the rest of the world made possible by the little flame lit by Thomas Jefferson on the Fourth of July 1776.
Arlington, VA on Jul. 4, 2013. USDA photo by Lance Cheung. Public domain via Flickr.