It’s almost Independence Day, and I feel fuzzy about freedom. I’m all for it, obviously. Who isn’t? But I’m a little confused about what freedom means.
Maybe it’s the jets. Nothing says power like sculpted alloy at the speed of sound. They’re fast, they’re loud, they fly real low. My first instinct is to wet myself.
Or it could be the fireworks, especially the street kind, the M80s or Claymore mines or whatever people buy to amuse the kids.
“Watch this son. I’ll blow a 6-foot crater in the lawn.”
Fireworks are also loud and sudden. They make me nervous, like the jets.
It all feels so, I dunno, so Texas. Or like a neighborhood version of Red Square on May Day: Don’t mess with us, dude, we have really loud planes. That’s the message, right? We’re bigger and stronger, and we can break your ear drums. And somehow we equate inner ear damage with national pride. Freedom’s just another word for boom!
But freedom’s more nuanced, I think. It involves questions like “freedom to what?” Not to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, right? That’s off the list. Not to take another kid’s lunch. Our freedom has moral and legal limits. It’s not whatever we can get away with; it’s freedom to do what’s right.
The guy on the next block with the Claymores? He’s been angry since “they” took away his freedom to blow things up. If the police stop by, he’ll deliver a little speech. Oh, yeah. He’s itching to deliver it, actually.
I get that. Sometimes those moral and legal limits are suffocating, and the only thing that feels right is blowing a huge hole in the lawn. It’s cathartic, like watching Chuck Norris kick the hell out of people. Dozens of people, all at once.
But in 1776, Jefferson and Adams didn’t sign the Declaration of Catharsis. They didn’t write about our inalienable right to act all big and strong. It was the opposite. Independence was about our rights to speak and worship even if the big and strong – such as King George – didn’t like it. And freedom worked because Americans shared an understanding about what we shouldn’t do: kill, steal, covet – the usual.
(OK, freedom didn’t work so well for women, for white men without property, noncitizens or people of color. But that’s all been ironed out, right? We’re cool?)
I’m not sure we all agree anymore on what we shouldn’t do. Like “don’t covet.” The other night my daughter was watching a reality show on wife-swapping. Really. (Next: Live from Sodom and Gomorrah!) Or “don’t steal.” Doesn’t insider trading by members of Congress seem like stealing?
Maybe I’m confused because catharsis is a growth industry. We all feel hemmed in, by too much traffic or too many rules, Greek debt, the Kardashians. So on July 4 we go for the gusto and celebrate Chuck Norris instead of Thomas Jefferson.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t about pacifism. Jefferson couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. He practiced violin three hours a day and spoke French. That’s why we needed Washington. Freedom needs defending.
But defending freedom isn’t just about loud or even big sticks. It’s also about making sure the few or the weak can exercise their inalienable rights. It’s about shoring up our sense of what we shouldn’t do. And defending freedom is about a conviction we’re all in this together.
Even the guy with the Claymores. Because like it or not, we are.As a child, Ken Miller was only allowed sparklers on July 4, but he isn’t bitter. Miller, one of six reader columnists whose work appears on this page, has been active in the Tacoma community for more than 40 years. Email him at email@example.com.