The Importance of a Simple Holiday


It's a very simple holiday, really. With fireworks, picnics and big bands, it's cheaper than Christmas, better for your diet than Thanksgiving, and it's easier on your lazy summer schedule than Easter because there's no sense in having a sunrise fireworks service. I suppose the Fourth of July's nearest relative is New Year's Eve, but they're distant cousins: the latter doesn't have the same roots in community and country that the former does. Even though it's the most--the only--political major holiday, it is unique as one of the most widely celebrated by America in all of its diversity. All but the most radically liberal of my friends exchange their critiques of the military-industrial complex for a little sentimental reveling inour nation's history and political tradition of freedom, inconsistencies notwithstanding. On the other hand, it's prime-time for conservatives to jump on the values band wagon.

Always rose-colored, my view of the Fourth has gotten muddier this summer, the indirect benefit of an internship with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. As an intern, I screen calls and letters for civil rights concerns, referring calls to other agencies as appropriate and summarizing written complaints for review by a legal screening committee. The vast majority of requests--appeals for help from indigent persons--don't fall under the auspices of the ACLU. But it doesn't surprise me that so few people know what the ACLU does: the name makes it into dockets far more often than into the media. What does surprise--and concern--me is the number of people claiming to have rights relative to the number who understand what they are and how to protect them. It is not a one-to-one ratio.

American are internationally famous for thier emphasis on rights. IT's as if we invented them, and to a certain extent we did. Justification in our legal system hangs for less on whether an action is good or bad in itself than on whether the agent had a right to act that way. But for such a system to function, it sems crucial that citizens know and be able to defend their liberties. As I spend hours a day listening to people complain of injustice, I am struck by simultaneously-low voter turnout, daily grumbling overheard on the train about mandatory jury duty and ubiquitous public opinion polls that show Americans are unhappy with their goernment, their society and their lives. Make no mistake: it is not the endless calls for help that bother me, but rather the fact that they are not matched by an equally bountiful stream of civic duty and a commitment to change--not just complain about--the system.

Epluribus unum, one nation out of many individuals, the status we enjoy as an economic powerhouse, stems, so the American lore goes, from a firm commitment to personal gain blinds us from seeing a responsiblity to our fellow citizens and, through the state, to ourselves. As Harvard president emeritus Derek C. Bok writes in his most recent book, The State of the Nation, "[T]he United States is constantly at risk of having its people regard their government merely as a service which they purchase with their taxes and which they are entitled to complain about loudly when it does not deliver good value for their money." I argue that it is more than a risk. Such a mindset has set in, and as a result civic society has withered, and along with it, citizen satisfaction. Divorce rates, cheating on exams and tax fraud have all increased in the last 30 years, while charitable giving, community service and voter participation have all fallen. One-third of all Americans cannot name one of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. It's hard to believe there wasn't more responsibility--both personally and politically--two-hundred years ago: we were dumping tea in harbors, reading the [Federalist] papers and thirstily discussing politics, weren't we? There is, of course, a more complex relationship among these factors than I imply, and I am resolute that, overall, our society is more complex now than it has ever been. But though the number of laws on the books has exploded, legislation can only accomplish so much; I submit there is a link amoung personal responsibility, civic duty and the health and happiness of a nation.

This is not a novel idea, and if that were the end of my story, I would tear up my ACLU membership card and join the Republican party wehre I could urge the rollback of welfare and the increase of police power in an effort to force personal responsiblity back on the American people. But to do so would be neither American, nor very responsible. What scares me a little this Fourth of July weekend is the feeling that there is no solution and, what's that there is no solution and, what's worse, that the decline in both civic responsiblity and its consequent unhappiness are inevitable parts of democarcy. Fear is, in my not-so-centrist opinion, typically the tool of conservatives, who use scare tactics to frighten voters into approving more radical legislation. (Consider constant hype over crime as one example: crime rates are lower now than they were at points during the 1910's, contrary to what we might think after listening to Rush, Newt, et al.)

But a little fear on the left wouldn't be such a bad idea right now. Those of us who zealously care for our rights and value freedom as a paramount goal of government must realize that we are caught between a rock and a hard place: maintain the single-minded focus on freedom and individualism and lose the personal responsibility that makes them possible, or seek to resurrect community spirit via quasi-totalitraian measure that destroy the very liberties that are the ends of our society. How in practice we can strike a balance between the two is as yet unclear to me, but to begin with, liberals must combine a vehement attention to rights with a circumspect view of the needs of civil society. Our unyielding emphasis on individual freedom must somehow come to terms with responsiblities, or we may not make it to the next dawn's early light.

Adam S. Hickey '99 is a Crimson editor living in Currier House. He is currently an intern with the Miami offices of Senator Robert D. Graham (D-FL) andthe American Civil Liberties Union of Floria.

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