By DARREN WALKER
The heart does not exactly swell with patriotic pride this Independence Day, as the gut absorbs one dizzying, disorienting blow after the next. Our sense of who we are, our very identity as Americans, feels assaulted and violated. Amid profound, painful regression on issue after issue, we are left gasping for breath. Our nation seems more irreparably divided than ever before in my lifetime, barrelling down a parallel path, perhaps, to the one our forebearers travelled in the 1850s. What we do now matters urgently. And the American identity that we still share matters too, not least because it must inform and inspire a common effort, across our differences, to find our way out and forward. I believe we still can agree on a set of ideas — values and aspirations — enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, 246 years on.
In our founding, I see flawed genius. In the declaration we celebrate, I see a statement of purpose. In our Constitution, I see our founders entrusting each generation to fix what the preceding one was unwilling to repair. To me, the callous cruelty of our founders — at least 34 of the 56 men who signed the declaration also enslaved human beings — is less remarkable than what they set in motion, however contradictory. They initiated a grand, complicated experiment with self-government that made possible abolition and suffrage, worker’s rights and civil rights and women’s rights, however slowly and unevenly. More astounding still, Black people and brown people, the Indigenous and the immigrant, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities, all claimed the American project as our own and expanded the circle of inclusion and opportunity.
Our founders bequeathed to us something radical, something unprecedented: the tools with which to build a multiracial, multi-ethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the privilege of American identity to all. My love of America — of the American idea — is unwavering. This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving.
But I fear we are mired in a culture of absolutism and tearing ourselves apart at the seams. Everything right now, it seems, is black or white, all or nothing, perfect or unacceptable. Every venue has become a theater for performatively asserting our own virtue or righteousness, or for denying someone else’s. The so-called microaggressions keep getting smaller, the disproportionate penalties bigger. Nuance and complexity, let alone compromise, are nowhere to be found. In their place is a pervasive, paralysing cynicism. And in turn, our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.
Even among those with whom we largely agree, we’ve normalised intolerance and incivility. Among those with whom we disagree, we shame and cancel. We dehumanise and demonise. Certainly, not everyone is equally culpable or complicit. Anger and grief are not unreasonable. I share the outrage and despair that many appropriately feel about America’s backsliding. But this cannot be a reason to cede our patriotism. Our ancestors and elders, today’s social justice leaders on the front lines, all have sacrificed too much for us to give up on America now.
And patriotism can take as many forms as there are perspectives. Love of country can mean placing your hand on your heart during the national anthem or kneeling on one knee. It can mean serving as a police officer or a first responder to keep our neighbourhoods safe, or protesting in those very same streets. The declaration itself was an act of defiant resistance.
However we give voice to our patriotism, let’s step away from the extremes and from the edge, away from the sanctimony and certitude. Let’s build longer bridges, not higher walls. The cost of the alternative is greater than any of us can bear.
Walker is president of the Ford Foundation
The New York Times