Coming Full Circle on July 4th

It’s the Fourth of July, when the United States celebrates our Declaration of Independence from Britain, adopted on this day in 1776. When I was very young, I eagerly looked forward to July 4th for the annual neighborhood picnics and evening fireworks. Then, as a young adult, I eschewed this holiday — I thought the celebrations reeked of a nationalist pride that was incongruent with how I often saw my country showing up at home and in the world.

But now I’ve come full circle. I love July 4th. Not because of the apple pies and fireworks but because of the celebration of freedom and the call to engaged citizenship integral to this day. It’s a day to celebrate all that this country can be, and a day to renew our citizen efforts to make it so.

Independence Day is about freedom — freedom from oppression, freedom from autocratic rule. But real freedom carries responsibility.

Cicero said: “Freedom is participation in power.” The Declaration of Independence wasn’t forged so we could be free to sit on our couches, free to choose from hundreds of TV channels, as climate change worsens, industries keep churning out toxic pollution and income inequality hits record highs. The Declaration of Independence was created so we could participate in our own governance and build a better future. So, let’s do it. Let’s exercise those citizen muscles.

In the days when I avoided celebrating July 4th, I also avoided the word “citizen.” I’ve come full circle on that too. I used to think the term was about exclusion, about limiting who has the legal documentation to participate in decision making. I wasn’t alone. As Eric Lui explains in our new podcast, the word citizen often arouses a reflex of suspicion, a sense that the term is jingoist or exclusionary.

“Just because a concept has been abused is not reason to abandon proper use” of the term, Eric said. “Our obligation as Americans, as inheritors of this creed, particularly if you are offended by those abuses of the term, is to redouble your efforts to reclaim it. The purpose of citizenship is to force this country to live up, a little bit more than it did yesterday, to its stated creed of liberty and equality for all. Embracing citizenship is one of the most important things people can do.”

Embracing citizen is important, and too often neglected. Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen, writes: “We’ve all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship, and that it can profoundly enrich our lives.” What better day than Independence Day to remind ourselves not just of our country’s potential, but of our potential, to step up as citizens to make this country more healthy, more fair, more sustainable and more fun?

So this July 4th, let’s have picnics and fireworks. And while we’re gathered together, let’s commit to strengthening our citizen muscles, working together, and making some serious change in the year ahead.