July 4 and November 19

>> Sunday, July 04, 2010

July 4th, 2010, and I don't know exactly what to say.

I think that's because I depressed myself earlier in the week. You may remember I wrote a piece on the right to self identify, and along the way I made note of the fact that rights describe an obligation owed to an individual or entity. And this depressed me because, you know, over the past decade of my life the United States hasn't been very good about respecting the obligations that one might think are due to people as a matter of basic humanity. I'm talking primarily, of course, about the fact that if the United States isn't a country that condemns the right not to be tortured, who is?

Which isn't exactly a patriotic thought or anything. There are those, I suspect, for whom love of one's country means a love for one's country right or wrong, or that the idea of "wrong" is even meaningless to start with because, after all, if we do something how can it be wrong? I don't subscribe to that view--I think I've said somewhere before that my idea of love is much more akin to Cordelia's in Shakespeare's King Lear: love that is honest and self-aware, love that is critical and defined, love that allows one to point out faults but that when all is lost puts one at the front of the fight for that which is loved. Cordelia is condemned, disinherited and exiled for her love, of course--but she's the one who fights for her father when all those who expressed shallow sentimentalities have betrayed him.


It's in the thought of the good fight, I think, that today I'm not going to offer up anything about words written or ratified on the Fourth Of July, but words that were spoken on a battlefield the afternoon of November 19th, 1863. Here, Sam Waterston recites the words of Abraham Lincoln that day:

Over a three day period just prior to the Fourth Of July, 1863--July 1st through July 3rd, more than 3,000 Union soldiers died to preserve a country that an unknown number of expatriated Americans (probably close to 5,000) died trying to wrench apart and divide. Many thousands more were injured over the three-day period. As a Southerner, and inordinately proud of the fact, I'm supposed to revere the Confederate dead as much or more than the Union dead, but unlike many of my brethren, I'm incapable of the cognitive dissonance that allows someone to rant and drool over patriotism and support the (Republican) President and troops and then slap a bumper sticker bearing a traitor's flag on his bumper. Sorry.

Those thousands died because Liberty is not a state, but an enduring work that is constantly created and eroded. I don't know how many of those thousands knew that this was why they had to die, or how many of them just thought it was time to kill the enemy or how many of them were just shooting back when they were shot at. I guess, though, that it doesn't matter. That whatever they felt during those three terrible July days has been replaced by the cause for which they fought. But the really crucial thing, and what Lincoln told us, and what we may have forgotten, is that their deaths were not endpoints but part of an unending effort. That the work for which they gave their lives is necessarily inchoate.

I don't know that the present political landscape would forgive any American leader who said such a terrible and beautiful thing, and perhaps this is why they don't.

I don't imagine I'll be going out to see any fireworks tonight. I doubt I will celebrate the birth of my nation much at all. But what I will try to do is recommit myself to Lincoln's legacy: to remind myself that we have gone astray in our celebrations of this nation's birth and taken it for granted, and that the Fourth should be less a time of congratulating ourselves and more a time of renewing our vows to labors that cannot end.


Jeri Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 6:45:00 PM EDT  

Thanks, Eric. You remain someone whose insights I admire greatly.

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