Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “Borges and Me: An Encounter,” an account of a trip he took into the highlands of Scotland in 1971 with Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
The Fourth of July is a time to ask what it means to be an American and take stock of what has become of the beautiful dream of a country “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” A noble vision shines there, one that we trace back to our Declaration of Independence, where equality was held as “self-evident.”
So where is that equality in the wake of Covid-19, with its devastating legacy of death and illness as well as economic and social disruption? Where does it stand amid Black Lives Matter? After thousands took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and other police violence, it looked (at least to me) like the country was taking a leap forward in the gradual march toward freedom for people of color.
Now, more than a year after Floyd’s death, I’ve been reading what feel like daily news reports about state legislatures taking action to make it harder for minorities to vote. Can anyone believe that American democracy itself isn’t at stake?
The partisan divide grows worse. Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today, a Pew Research study found in November 2020. On everything from the economy to racial justice, climate change and policing, it seems impossible to bridge the distance between right and left. Meanwhile, angry voices on both sides of the aisle fill our TV screens.
Is this country just hopelessly divided? And does this cancel July 4th as a cause for celebration?
Call me crazy, but I want to put forward the idea that more things unite us than divide us. We agree on many core issues: that democracy matters, that health care should be accessible, that the environment deserves a great deal of urgent attention, and that education is key for younger generations – the next cohort to decide the fate of America. Investing in infrastructure has been a consistent wish on both sides of the aisle. Even on once hot-button topics like same-sex marriage, there has been a steady drift toward acceptance. While there is an ongoing debate about the influx of migrants at our southern border, most Americans see immigration as a good thing.
The Fourth of July celebrates what happened in 1776, when the British colonies in North America asserted their independence from oppressive imperial domination. And our founding fathers were bright people with differing ideas who managed to work together to lay the foundation of our country based on shared key values. I think we can all celebrate their drive toward personal freedom, self-government and equality. The US Constitution followed our victory in the War of Independence, and it remains a durable guide to American self-governance; I’ve never understood the argument of the Originalists, who think it should be interpreted exactly how the authors meant. Anyone familiar with the so-called “intentional fallacy” in literary theory – which suggests the author’s intention can never really be known – understands the impossibility of this desire, however noble.
The Americanness that we celebrate is certainly grounded in 1776, and that’s a good thing. But there is a darker side of American history – the part about wiping out a vast and sophisticated native culture that had been here for centuries. And there was the sin of slavery. In 2019, the New York Times’ 1619 project reframed American history around the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.
This upset many White people. But why can’t both historical narratives be true? They are. We should teach our children about the truth of 1776 and our national drive toward liberty and equality. In doing so, we should not shrink from the ignoble sides of our story. It’s possible, even necessary, for Americans to learn to accept a complex national narrative. History is not – or mustn’t be – propaganda for one faction or another. We must confront and accommodate reality and move forward with understanding and joy to realize the dreams of 1776.
In a year marked by anxiety and division, it’s important to remember this July 4th that we’re one nation. We believe in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and while there are many fierce points of disagreement, we remain a country founded by Enlightenment thinkers who understood that reason is itself the source of all political authority. Tolerance, progress and freedom for all are crucial aspects of Enlightenment thinking, which is rooted in constitutional government and the separation of church and state.
We can all, I think, agree that all men and women are created equal. Now let’s make that dream a reality.