Let’s Not Allow the Power of Independence Day’s Message To Be Diluted

America. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

America. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Every Fourth of July there’s talk about patriotism and what it means to be an American. We can complain about the NSA, the IRS and a host of privacy invasions, but at the end of the day, there’s a reason America has a big illegal immigration problem – it’s the land of opportunity, and people who have none want to live here. The Chinese word for America is literally “beautiful country.” Immigrants get it, and we should too; if not every day, at least on the Fourth of July.

We are a country built on a foundation of civil liberties because of The Declaration of Independence, ratified on July 4, 1776, which joined the thirteen colonies as a new nation. In the Declaration the founders wrote a mission statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For the first time in the world, freedom became an entitlement.

But we who grew up in the 80s and after have seen wars fought for freedom through a diffused lens.  We knew no one who fought in World War I and very few who fought in World War II. Aside from our peers who served in the military, we watched wars on TV while our little siblings played X-Box.  Having no personal connection to fear and oppression, why wouldn’t we relax into a generation that just expects to be provided with the first 3 levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

In the age of Generation Me I get why holidays are defined based on what they do for us rather than the purpose of their existence. July Fourth now evokes barbecues, fireworks and a paid day off. We forget that it’s really America’s Independence Day, and that without its existence, things could be very different.

Find a friend whose parents are immigrants. Ask him or her why they left their homeland to come here. Their answer is most often something like, “because America is free and we had opportunity here,” or worse, “because our government was going to kill us if we stayed.”

For those who have only known life here, it can be easy to avoid acknowledging the millions of men and women around the world without freedom. Whether Meriam Ibrahim, the young mother in Sudan sentenced to death for being Christian, or the 300 kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria whom Boko Haram threatens to sell to the sex trade, or the millions of women who live under Sharia Law… they can only dream of half the freedoms we take for granted. I dare say veterans and New Yorkers who experienced 9/11 are probably the closest America has to real identification with those who live in such horror.

In fact, it bugs me how the rest of America seems to forget such unpleasantries. Alas, that very characteristic makes America stronger too: the instinct to move on may seem selfish, but it makes us resilient and enables us to accomplish extraordinary things — which brings it back to Generation Me and their take on the Fourth of July.

With freedom comes duty and responsibility, so when I watch those “man on the street” interviews, I lose confidence in Darwinism and pour a martini. But maybe I’m missing something. Maybe Generation Me is in fact Darwin at work. Since the 50s, society has become softer and more entitled. Maybe some demanding, competitive, narcissistic progenies will sort that out — naturally.

And so this Fourth of July weekend, take a minute to thank our founding fathers, and if you’re explaining independence to a Generation Me, try speaking their language: “Picture working 7:00 a.m to 6:00 p.m. at Starbucks for 30 years without a raise.” That’s what your life might be like without the freedom we celebrate on the Fourth of July. Then expect them to ignore you, look at their iPhone and go back to the hackathon, where they just might accomplish something.