Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Oh, freedom

I went to the White Sox game last night with my sons and my sister. The Sox lost to the Baltimore Orioles, 9-6, but that didn’t matter to me. I was there for the fireworks.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be a fireworks designer? To choreograph the explosions with the music? The fireworks I saw last night were beautiful in form, shape, variety and timing. But the music behind them was so much less imaginative. Third-rate lyrics proclaimed freedom this, liberty that, and the determination to “fight for the right to be free.” The only song in the extravaganza that had any sense of history behind it was Neal Diamond’s "America" which celebrates the struggle of immigrants. Yet the irony of playing this just a week after the defeat of immigration reform was, I’m sure, unintended.

My expectations were not high—this was a 21st century ballpark, a place where even pitching changes have commercial sponsors. But I expect more than mindless nationalism from Fourth of July celebrations. The lyrics of one song played during the fireworks talked about “the flag that makes us free.” I wanted to yell, “No, it’s the Constitution that makes you free! Laws and process, not symbols!”

My kids were also disappointed in the music. They wanted to hear Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the U. S. A." Fat chance. That tune’s lyrics are critical of class in America and of American imperialism. Not the right sentiments for a baseball game that began with a “Support the Troops” parade of military veterans and active duty sailors.

I did get a lump in my throat as those scrubbed and white-suited young men and women walked around the field, but I wasn’t thinking of the flag. I was thinking of the mothers of those kids, and of all the parents and families who have given up their young men (and women) to the cause of American freedom. The guys, forever young, who didn’t come back from World War II and Viet Nam. The adventuring young men who left home to join Washington’s army and died of disease and starvation at Valley Forge. The husbands and fathers who return from Iraq physically in one piece, but who will struggle with PTSD for years to come.

The top eight feet of bookshelves above my desk hold the American story--from "Pilgrims at Plymouth" to "All the President's Men." There are biographies of the founders: the evasive Thomas Jefferson; John and Abigail Adams, critical and articulate; the ambitious and iconic George Washington; Benjamin Franklin, scientist, businessman, slippery diplomat. Then there’s "America's Jubilee," which describes the United States fifty years after the Declaration of Independence, when the Marquis de Lafayette toured the country and Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other, forever consecrating the sacred Fourth.

There's a long stretch of books on the Civil War, chronicles of the carnage. There’s a skinny one by James McPherson called "Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution." What was revolutionary about Lincoln? He reached back and reinterpreted Jefferson's statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" to include everyone (males, anyway), and said that each man had the right to eat the bread produced by the sweat of his own brow. Seems self-evident, doesn’t it?

Beyond Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction,” the shelf holds Stephen Ambrose's book on the transcontinental railroad ("Nothing Like It in the World"), David McCullough's "The Great Bridge" (a great read), and Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” There are Roosevelt books, books on the Depression and World War II, and "The Fifties" from David Halberstam. Ahead of that is Stanley Karnow's Vietnam, which I will read someday. And there are two of the three Taylor Branch books on the civil rights movement. Later this summer I hope to finish reading the third.

I have been reading American history books since I was seven years old. The heroes of ’76 filled me with pride and curiosity. What would it have been like to be alive then? Would I have sided with the patriots, made bold by what Thomas Paine called the “Common Sense” of the issue? Or would that have seemed too radical, dangerous even? You like to think you’re on the right side of history, the side that is making the world a better place, but it’s important to remember that hindsight is much clearer than the vision of the moment. Power and idealism are uneasy bedfellows. Freedom means freedom for others, not just the people celebrating their own right to be free.

Fireworks displays are not meant to be a forum for ideas. Of course not. Light, dark, color and big booms invite visceral reactions. In our household, the creature most affected by last night’s fireworks was our dog. She was a nervous, clingy wreck.

But still—all those colors, firing off every which way. Sizzle, whistle, zoom and zowie. Big bangs, showers of sparks, soaring colors, and something new to look at every few seconds. Fireworks are powerful, dangerous, beautiful. Like this free country.

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