This afternoon, I will join thousands of my fellow Tacomans at Freedom Fair, our city’s annual Independence Day Celebration on the waterfront.
In the space of a few hours, I will see more shirtless men than in the sum of all the other days of the year. Jets will soar above me, strain the limits of my hearing, and remind me of the military portion of the looming U.S. deficit “fiscal cliff”.
The song “America, This Is You” from the opening credits of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (back when Bob Saget used to host the show) will play on an endless loop in my mind. I will pay $14 for a swig of lemonade. When the sun has gone down, I will be kept awake by the frequent discharge of illegal fireworks.
All of this celebration is done in the name of freedom. Freedom is the one American value we, collectively, seem to have settled on to describe not only our sovereignty, but what we consider essential.
Certainly, when we declared our independence from Britain, we mentioned several other values – and people have died for those values as well. But “freedom” seems to get the lion’s share of our focus.
What makes American freedom so distinct? Surely, other nations are free – many governments have similar protections of individual freedoms. Don’t get me wrong – our freedom is precious, dearly earned, and nobly protected. But it is not the only characteristic of our nation that is precious, earned, and protected. In fact, our understanding of freedom might suffer from fixating upon that word.
Freedom is a tricky notion, especially in a nation such as ours with a representative government, where the only credible threat to our liberty would be our own inability to maintain it. And those individual liberties are shared with many nations. Really, the most distinctly American freedoms seem to be the collective benefits of unchecked Superpower status.
As a nation of near omnipotence and unequaled leisure, we are free from a global reality to a certain extent; but this hardly seems central to the American identity we established in our founding documents.
The first self-evident truth listed in the Declaration of Independence is this: “All men are created equal”. That’s the first thing we said when we wrote our letter to the King of England. We followed it by saying that equal men have inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Our rights as Americans are based upon equality. Freedom means nothing if it is not shared equally by all citizens.
So why don’t we celebrate equality? It’s an easy concept – much easier and less fraught with ethical complexities than the concept of freedom. No one is better than anyone else. We have the right to equal access and equal protection under the law.
But for all its simplicity, equality seems to be much more controversial in this nation than it ought to be.
Two days ago, I said to my son, “We should go down to Taylor Way to buy some fireworks and maybe set them off in one of those big empty parking lots!” The sentence was barely out of my mouth before I kind of wanted to punch myself in the throat. In a city where fireworks are illegal, my ability to celebrate my freedom by buying fireworks stems from a system of genocide, theft, and oppression. That we sent the native occupants of this land to live in restricted reservations – in the name of freedom and manifest destiny – is more than ample evidence of our American ability to conveniently parse equality.
So, when the sky is lit tonight with bursts of spangling flame, I will be thinking about the freedom I have and whether it is shared equally by all Americans. I will know that it never has been and it is not now.
I will think about the absurd injustices we have committed, even while becoming a beacon of freedom for the world.
I will know that, in our age of interconnection and information, in state after state, I still witness Americans unwilling to recognize homosexuals as equal citizens.
Somehow, committed relationships between people of the LGBTQ community are not worthy of the same protections and privileges associated with those of heterosexuals. If we truly believed in equality – the first value enshrined in our Declaration of Independence – we would resoundingly guarantee the right of all people to share in the privileges of our society.
By refusing the right of marriage to gay citizens, we are saying that our definition of a religious ceremony is more important to us than our belief in equality.
The American idea of freedom depends on the firm belief that all of us are equal. If we knowingly allow ourselves to think of others as less, we erode our very own freedom and pass a legacy of intolerance to future generations.
We can do a heck of a lot better.