Post by American teacher Matt Weiss:
It is Independence Day, and normally I am happy to celebrate that virtue. I am getting to witness its power firsthand as my daughter, into her eighteenth year, revels in her independence daily by driving, working and thinking for herself. I am inspired by, and more than a little proud of, her growing independence.
But like all prescriptions, the medicine of independence can become toxic if we take too much, and this year I wonder, not for the first time, if our country has overdosed on independence to the point where many of us practically reject the very notion of society.
One of the great virtues of this nation is that it provides the opportunity for people to become who they want to be. The nineteenth century, for all its horrors, revealed what individuals, unshackled from the formal hierarchy of European-style class, could do when they were allowed to rise to the highest level their talent would take them. Andrew Carnegie's father was a destitute weaver displaced by automation whose family was punished for Andrew's uncle's labor agitation. In Scotland, his prospects did not exist, but here his son became the world's richest man. That Andrew, too, would become an exploiter and abuser of labor is just one of the nearly endless list of bitter ironies in our history when our country failed to live up to its credo, expressed most eloquently on this date, that all of us are created equal. The bustling 19th century saw a war fought to preserve slavery and the near-extermination of the native people of this continent, and yet also witnessed the rise of so many who fled places without prospects for these shores and prospered, my family among them.
So we celebrate the virtues of independence, but I think we forget that our country at its best exists to elevate us all--otherwise, why have a country? Among the great investments of that century were the land grant colleges built in the West that gave the children of farmers access to knowledge they would never have attained on their own. The agricultural and technical schools founded there were a public investment that paid off in a nation that could practically feed the entire world. The transcontinental railroad was another public investment, and the rugged and independent souls who sought their fortunes in the West depended on it--yes, they DEPENDED on it--to build their communities as those trains literally carried the boards and bricks and panes of glass that would make their houses, and the Sears Catalog enabled them to summon the trappings of civilization to the mountains and great plains. Sears & Roebuck, a private company, supplied the goods, but we, the people, built the railroads that brought them, and we were all better for it.
When I was a kid at my beloved hippie summer camp, the director, Jay Stager, who passed away this past year, knew how to do the 4th of July. We participated in the town parade. One year he bought an old car that campers helped tune up under the supervision of a mechanically inclined counselor and then Jay put on a helmet and raced it at the local dirt track, the kids watching from the stands, the red number 13, which represented his mid-summer July 13th birthday, in a white heart on the door of the car christened "Hidden Valley Hot Wheels." We cheered as he brought up the rear and then watched the fireworks with the locals.
But he understood the limits of independence, too. One year, he declared the 4th at camp "Interdependence Day," and campers spent part of the afternoon tied gently at the wrist to a buddy as a symbol of how much we depend on each other and so we'd see what we could accomplish together. I didn't like it then--I thought it was hokey. A lot of Jay's ideas were half-baked, but this one has grown on me over time.
If our country is nothing but an arena for individual competition--some Hobbesian Hunger Games--we are far from the greatest country in the world. I'd argue we're not a country at all. I think some of us have imbibed such a toxic level of independence that we have lost the ability to dream collectively: what could each of us do if all of us were free from the fear of destitution because of illness? What could each of us do if all of us pooled our resources to build the most efficient, cleanest and smartest electrical grid in the world? What could each of us do if all of us committed to linking up our vast expanses and our great cities with modern, high-speed transportation? What could each of us do if all of us, from the poorest child in East St. Louis to the poorest child in Appalachia, had access to the fastest internet signal on the planet? What could each of our families do if we thought of all of us as part of a great American family?
These are the questions we have asked ourselves and answered in the past. Every one of the achievements on that list is part of our history--we need only achieve them again, and we can learn from the answers we gave to those questions. Our best answers were collaborative. The left and the right contributed ideas. Our best answers were not one-or-the-other types of answers but some-of-both types. The GI Bill funneled public resources to private individuals and the ensuing fluorescence of entrepreneurial activity built the American Century and helped create the largest middle class the world has ever known. If you want to make America great again, see that era for what it was and what produced it.
We have become so independent many of us can no longer grasp the logic of insurance. "If I am young, why should I pay the same as someone who is old? Let the old man pay for what he needs. I am independent!"
But the old man and the old woman built the foundation your life stands on, and you, too, will be old some day and have needs. Each of us is stronger when all of us are stronger.
It is a sweet irony that we celebrate our independence not alone and atomized, but together. We gather in our public spaces and turn our eyes skyward and gape in wonder as the man-made starlight of the fireworks lights the faces of the old and the young, the black, white and brown, and rains down on all of us, together.
Today, as we watch them, let's remember that we, as a nation, have reached those stars, or at least reached toward them, together. It was 48 years ago this month that Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on ground that was not the Earth. Armstrong was a humble man. He never gloried in his personal triumph nor exploited it for wealth. He recognized that he didn't get there on his own. We helped him get there. He walked there for all of us. He couldn't have built that rocket in his backyard and he didn't come for profit. He came, as the plaque that still sits on the dusty lunar surface reads, in peace for all mankind.
Hillary Clinton has been more abused than almost any American I can think of over the past several years. Even those of us who supported her have lamented her imperfections, and one of our biggest complaints is that she failed to craft a message that would energize and inspire us.
I'm not so sure. I think she said it, but we didn't hear it. We thought it was trite, but now I think she was right.
We are stronger together.
Happy Interdependence Day, 2017.