July 4: America takes stock

Fireworks. Firearms. Parades. Polarization.

America the beautiful is experiencing a schizophrenic July 4 this year. We just celebrated Juneteenth National Independence Day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Americans, and now we approach another Independence Day — July 4, when we honor our independence from Britain and the founding of our democracy.

But in the background of both celebrations is conflict and conversation over what kind of America we seek to be and become. The mood is somewhat dour, as reflected in the latest Pew research, which highlights the lack of trust Americans have in their government.

Conflict dominates the news cycle, with the Jan. 6 hearings, residual COVID-19, gun violence, abortion debates and climate concerns, not to mention a war in Ukraine and record levels of inflation.

But one thing is true. Conflict has always been part of the American story.

Recall the period in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence. The colonies were in an ugly state of conflict with England. We wanted to absolve ourselves of all allegiance to the British Crown. There had been bitter disputes over taxation and representation, religious freedom and sovereignty.

From the moment of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we argued over its meaning. Year after year, anniversary after anniversary, we debated loudly.

At times the conflict over America was searing. When Frederick Douglass gave his emotional keynote address on July 5, 1852, he mourned the state of our nation. He asked, “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July?” Douglass spoke of our nation’s cruelty as it was turning 76 years old:

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine”

It was a bitter rebuke. 

But remember that in the same speech, Douglass spoke admiringly of the genius of American institutions and the importance of debate, saying that “every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the Constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one. Without this fight, the liberty of an American citizen would be as insecure as that of a Frenchman.”

The point is that throughout our 246-year history, we have questioned our progress as a nation and endured conflict, military and political. We have struggled with our identity many times.

What seems different about today is the climate of conflict in America and how that conflict is manifesting itself.

Conflict is endemic to society. In training other nations about democracy, experts know that one must allow for the give and take of debate and dissent that is part of the good kind of conflict.  

We encourage citizens to engage in civic discussion, campaigning, voting and governing. We stress the rule of law, freedom of information, freedom of religion, individual and human rights as ingredients to make a more perfect union — a participatory democracy with shared values and interests. We teach dialogue and listening, and respect for the history of the other.

The tipping point to avoid, we explain to other nations, is violence. Once conflict becomes violent, you have reached a difficult phase, and it will take hard work to repair and rebuild — to fill in the cracks and fissures that eat away at the fabric of a civil society. Human beings often forget their habits of democracy and those habits must be re-learned.

And after intense conflict, there will be historic reckonings, accountability, truth commissions, justice and mercy. It is a hard road to travel.

What we have learned about international conflict is that violence often starts with small outbreaks and then boils up and spreads. We see that happening in American cities and towns.

What is worth knowing about conflict, even violent conflict, is that nothing is irreversible. Human beings are capable of change. Conflicts can be resolved.

These polarizing times, seemingly intractable in nature, could be followed by a period of reconciliation. Political discourse and debate could become nonviolent — as natural as the parades and parties that filled the streets of Philadelphia the week of July 4, 1776, when citizens read the Declaration of Independence aloud and fireworks, not gunfire, lit up the skies.

One must remain hopeful even in seemingly dark days. As my grandmother used to say, “Walk on the sunny side of the street.”

Tara D. Sonenshine served as executive vice president of the United States Institute of Peace and currently teaches public diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags Fourth of July Fourth of July Frederick Douglass Independence Day

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