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Holding On to Those Self-Evident Truths
By John Wooding
It’s Independence Day. A few weeks ago I became an American citizen. No big deal, really. Thousands of people do this every year. But I have been here for over thirty years, hanging on to my Green Card (it isn’t green) for no real reason—perhaps clinging to a British identity, maybe a certain arrogance, perhaps inertia, probably ambivalence about going through the process. I really don’t know. But now I am an American, and this will be my first Independence Day as a citizen.
The ceremony took place at Faneuil Hall (the irony here was not lost on this Brit). I did not expect to be moved by the event, but I was—deeply. I was one of 262 people from 86 countries who sat staring at paintings of George Washington (he looks a bit pissed off), the Adams (John and Sam, both a tad grumpy) and of Webster (in full debate mode) while waiting to become citizens. There we were—from Azerbaijan to Zambia and from everywhere in between. We were young and we were old and all the colors of humanity. And lots of kids and families and friends. We were in party mode—full of expectation and a little bit intimidated by the setting. When the judge arrived (a woman, herself an immigrant) we quieted down, a little scared by the court being called to order. The judge was remarkably friendly, asking each of us to stand up when our country was named and each getting a cheer when we did so. On stage a bunch of young children (volunteers from the newly inducted mums and dads) led us in the oath. We happily renounce and abjured all allegiance to foreign potentates (I had been meaning to do that for ages). The young woman from the Dominican Republic sitting next to me whispered, “What’s a potentate?” I mumbled something about not having my PowerPoint slides available to explain.
We pledged, we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” (with a lot of looking down at the handy-dandy lyrics, thoughtfully provided) and we listened. The judge, with warmth and humor, let us know how seriously we should take this event. She pointed out that we had just sworn to defend this country from foreign enemies but that it was equally important that we defend it from those who would limit its freedoms in the name of that defense. I was shocked and I was pleased that she said this. She told us to use our newfound ability to vote but chided that this was not enough, that democracy requires work and not just a mark on a ballot. She stressed that true democracy demands engagement, participation and struggle and that this, and only this, will insure the greatness of this country. The critical listener in me was vigorously nodding agreement. It got me thinking.
Born of a generation used to slamming the U.S.—the Vietnam War, Watergate, Civil Rights, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and the too-often arrogant posing—I tended to take what we academics like to call a “critical stance.” Having for years called the U.S. to task for supporting tin-pot dictatorships in the developing world, where military regimes committed the most appalling acts while the American government turned a blind eye, saving the world from the Soviets; having puzzled over the obsession with guns, the debate over abortion, the resistance to socialized medicine, and the mindless advocacy of individual over collective rights, I have done my share of tut-tutting and complaining. Like many others I have been outraged by the lies about weapons of mass destruction, the stupidity of pretending climate change ain’t happening, by the horror that is Guantanamo, and (with many American friends) perplexed by a government system that works about as well as a Ford Pinto. Oh, and the strutting America: bigger, better and so terribly right about everything. It is really no wonder that so many (myself included) are quick to damn and so unwilling to praise. So you can imagine I had a certain skepticism about becoming an American and I wasn’t expecting to feel so moved or to feel so much pride that morning as I joined the huddled masses in downtown Boston.
And yet that day, in that historic hall, I realized that the core values of America are incredibly important and unique. The Declaration, by insisting that we are all equal, that we have inalienable rights and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should always and everywhere be protected, is a magnificent statement. The assertion that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed should never be forgotten nor eroded. These ideas, these claims, are the foundations of democracy and they mean much more than I often thought. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, too often misused and misquoted by scoundrels, builds on this foundation, demanding protection from tyranny and enshrining rights that are absolutely critical. I guess we sometimes forget the power of these words and the passionate core held by these ideas.
On that morning, in a too hot hall, with hundreds of others, I thought about these things. The need to defend the liberties and the rights that sit at the heart of the American experience became evident to me in a new way. I was proud to be part of this, to become American. I realized why so many want to be in this country, to feel this country. I now know why I have stayed here and all the many ways this country has been good to me. More than anything it touched me and made me understand that we all need to pay attention, all of the time. If we don’t do that, if we don’t pay attention, democracy will wither and collapse. Paying attention means that we have to know stuff about the world, celebrate diversity, speak truth to power and argue—with each other, with the powerful. We need to be informed and engaged and stand up for what is right. And yes, sometimes take to the streets. Democracy is an obligation. We need to make sure that Jefferson’s ringing words of self-evident truths remain vibrant and alive. Being an American demands it. I will try to do my bit.
John Wooding © 2013