I remember as a child that whenever the 4th of July rolled around, I would try earnestly to reflect on the significance of the holiday. That is not an easy task for a person submerged in the fanfare of commercialism and the somewhat superficial patriotism of flags and fireworks. I always understood that I was supposed to be grateful for something; that we were celebrating a day of great importance to the lifestyle I was privileged to live. And I tried my best to somberly but enthusiastically show the appropriate reverence. Although I later came to know well the history behind the holiday, the cultural expressions of it still left me feeling somewhat empty. Which is not to say that I don't usually enjoy my 4th of July celebrations- I do, especially since we turned the day into an annual family reunion about 20 years ago.
But it seems to me that there is often something missing amongst the cookouts, beers, and fireworks. I find it honorable that so many communities take the day to remembers fallen soldiers and express thanks to those currently serving. And yes, patriotism does have something to do with being grateful for what we have as Americans and with knowing that our liberties came at a cost.
What about those living without their freedom? What about the millions of people around the world suffering under severe repression, deprivation, and a lack of the most basic dignities? It seems to me that in order to honor the holiday we call "Independence Day," in the United States, it is our obligation to reflect upon how we might use our liberties to help those seeking theirs. In dozens of countries around the world- places such as Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Egypt, Vietnam, Pakistan, Palestine, Belarus, and Tibet- there are vast numbers of people who daily risk their lives in the struggle for the same freedom and civil liberties that many of us take for granted, even on the day most sacred to our own history of independence from arbitrary rule.
Perhaps it is time to redefine what the terms patriotism and citizenship really mean in the post-post-Cold War world. President Obama assisted this effort enormously when he spoke directly to tyrants who would "cling to power [by] silencing dissent" and that "we will hold out a hand if you will unclench your fist." In those few words, he acknowledged that the United States and its citizens can no longer ignore the interests of peoples around the world, and that if we are to survive, we must find a way to work together; to locate and capitalize on our mutual interests as human beings first, and citizens of an increasingly-interconnected world second.
What a contrast to the black-and-white worldview of President Obama's predecessor who told the world "Either you're with us, or you're with the terrorists." There was no gray area in that version of reality- no room for discussion, no opening in which to examine our common humanity. It is not a coincidence that in the past eight years, our progress as a people has been eclipsed by the exploitation of our own prejudices, greed, and fear. And this stunted evolution goes beyond reckless foreign policy. For nearly a decade, the United States has lagged behind the rest of the industrialized democratic world on issues as diverse as health care, environmental protection, stem cell research, and gay rights.
It is necessary to reconsider the notions of patriotism and citizenship not just because it is the sane, humane thing to do, but because states themselves are becoming increasingly irrelevant on the global stage. Power is increasingly found in transnational actors- from multinational corporations to international organizations- and sub-state actors- from democracy movements in places like Iran and Burma to vibrant civic organizations in the developed democracies.
I see it as our job as patriotic Americans to encourage the only natural result of these shifts in power--to promote more global justice through the mechanisms of liberty. In the next decade, there should be no place in the world- including the United States- where people occasionally find themselves having to choose between being a good citizen and being a good human being.
We have an opportunity today- on our own independence day- to recognize that our patriotic obligations extend beyond our own borders, and that our political, economic, and spiritual development is intricately tied up in the corresponding development of others. We must finally acknowledge as a people that our right to exercise the liberties with which we are gifted comes with a corresponding obligation to help promote those same liberties for others yet to obtain them. If we fail to come to that understanding, the freedom that we celebrate every July 4th is wasted.