For the people of any country, independence — that is, the freedom to control their own destiny — is an absolutely essential aspect of their national identity.
In fact, in one way or another almost every country in the world observes the anniversary of its independence, and those that don’t surely wish they could.
The United States isn’t the only nation that celebrates Independence Day this month. Among the others: Algeria, the Bahamas, Belgium, Colombia, Liberia, Malawi, Peru, Rwanda, Slovakia and Venezuela.
Most recently, South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011. Sadly, the situation there has descended into chaos as rival ethnic and religious factions struggle — often ruthlessly — for political supremacy.
Here in the United States, we’ve had our own struggles — the Civil War being by far the most traumatic — since declaring our independence from Great Britain in 1776.
In Hong Kong this week, thousands upon thousands of protesters — mostly young people — marched through the streets, undeterred by heavy rain, to demand democracy. They carried signs that declared “Say no to Communist China.” Essentially, they were calling for independence, something that’s not in the Beijing government’s plans.
But there is a tacit agreement among Americans of all ethnic, religious and political associations that, generally speaking, pluralism is a vital element in the preservation of our freedom, even if at times it is honored more in theory than in practice.
Sunnis and Shiites are fighting to the death in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Protestants and Catholics are still bitter rivals in places such as Northern Ireland, while Muslims and Christians slug it out in parts of Africa.
But religious tolerance, while perhaps not yet universal, is an accepted virtue in our nation.
Even so, for all the idealism and the undeniable successes Americans have enjoyed, not all is well in our country, and the Fourth of July provides a suitable background for thoughtful assessment of the challenges we still face in our noble pursuit of national excellence.
For example, there is ample evidence that our education system lags behind those of many other modernized nations, and there are deep divisions among those who are seeking to remedy that dangerous situation.
Also, let’s be honest: It took the United States far too long to properly embrace the noble notion — expressed so profoundly by the Founding Fathers — of equality of opportunity for all, and there remain too many examples of various kinds of discrimination, even though few nations can match ours when measured against the ideal.
And there is one other important area of concern in the United States, and that’s the embarrassingly low level of citizen participation in our democracy. Too many of us are taking our freedom for granted.
For example, since 1968, less than 60 percent of the registered voters have cast their ballots in America’s presidential elections. Voter turnout at other levels — state, county and municipality — has generally been even lower.
Democracy — which is just another word for freedom — is best served when all of the citizens participate, even if that means no more than taking the time to register to vote and then to go to the polls on Election Day.
That more than 40 percent of those who even bothered to register haven’t cast their ballots when given the opportunity is shameful. Those who are eligible to vote but don’t are simply not doing their share, and yet it would not be surprising to learn that they are among the loudest critics of their elected officials.
So, today let’s sing, with all our hearts, our favorite patriotic songs, and let’s enthusiastically congratulate ourselves on our good fortune to live in a country so committed to freedom. But let’s also resolve to do our part to scrub away the few but potent negatives that diminish our nation’s greatness.
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