Last week we celebrated the Declaration of Independence, the words of America's birth. They are revered as much as freedom itself. Yet few people really know more than a few choice phrases.
But it's also true that the declaration, like all famous works of writing, need not be memorized and understood for what was meant by brave and intelligent people from the past. The words themselves desire freedom from the constraint of one meaning. The world is vastly different than it was in 1776. The words must escape from the grave of antiquity so they may inspire new dialogues of freedom today.
The word "freedom" itself implies "escape." On the Fourth of July people escape the doldrums of everyday life to enjoy fireworks, parades, barbecues, and other forms of simple freedom. But the more our culture moves to simplify our daily work so we may partake in simple pleasures, the more we become dependent on the means to keep life simple and easy. Dependency is not a friend of freedom.
The theme of the parade here in Juneau was Alaska's Golden Anniversary of statehood. June 30, 1958, might also be called "Dependence Day," because our state became a full partner ready to receive its due from the federal government's budget. Before that, Alaska was a bit like the 13 colonies, taxed as lesser citizens of the republic. Today we freely depend on receipt of more than our share of pork.
Freedom's values were visible in the parade. We were reminded of free elections by campaign organizers for candidates seeking public office. Gold was within the message for the campaign to free mining from regulatory constraints. The Veterans for Peace displayed a gold star etched into a tombstone to remind all that there are 4,100 "Gold Star" families who have lost loved ones in Iraq.
All the marchers were greeted with cheers along the route down Egan Drive. But is it possible to celebrate independence as a mere memory of historic events the same way every year? How many people understood the full meaning to any of the parade's elaborate messages? How many went home and contemplated any deeper ideal to the entire concept of freedom?
And so it is with the declaration, words admired for their existence but left to rot in the stale state of hero worship for deeds well done. Words that inspired a fight for freedom have become words without freedom because they are locked in the tomb of one meaning remembered on one day for the purpose of celebrating one word.
If we examine the final words declaring the historic break from England, we'll see our founding fathers forged a new bond that propels the ideal of freedom to be much more than individual liberty. "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
"Mutually" here means interdependence, in this case, the sharing of responsibility to ensure freedom endures. But whose fortunes did Congress pledge to share when they approved another $162 billion for the war in Iraq. For as the national debt soars, those with the greatest wealth lobby for the Bush tax cuts to become permanent. And every one of us received a small rebate to stimulate the sputtering economy.
If we ponder how it is that "mankind are more disposed to suffer ... than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed," perhaps we'll see that we collectively suffer from a simplified view of freedom. Clearly implied in the 2008 economic stimulus rebate is a dependency upon our custom of consumerism, as if freedom is nothing more than having innumerable individual choices along the chain of retail outlets.
The more we remain self absorbed in our personal fortunes and material possessions, however small they may be, the more we ignore the responsibility freedom brings. Real freedom, like all meaningful aspects of life, comes with a curse to match its blessing. Preserving our unalienable rights to life and liberty requires serious personal sacrifice. The pursuit of happiness must also be an effort on behalf of the greater good.
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