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Honoring Our Independence - A July 4th Reflection

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One writer's idea of how best to honor our independence.

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It was a few years ago, and I was having coffee at Le Pain Quotidein near the ocean in Manhattan Beach. I got up to leave and some high school students approached me and asked if I would sign their petition. I took it in hand, read it, and said of course, that sounds an awful lot like Thomas Jefferson - or something of the sort. One young man said, "You are the first person we've asked that knew what it was". The students continued to tell me about the kinds of angry responses they were getting, things like "Are you communists?", "Get out of here!", and so forth. The document that was unleashing such hostility was the Declaration of Independence with the familiar parts cut out.

Now, I had an advantage being that I taught A.P. U.S. Government and my students and I go through many of the founding documents together with a fine tooth comb. But still, I was surprised that so many were unable to even identify the tone of the document and connect it to what we celebrate today, the adoption of a document, by incredibly brave souls, that stood up to tyranny and set us on a difficult course to where we are today.

I often reflect back to that event. After all, this was happening in a community of highly educated, affluent, many generational Americans and yet so few, well actually none to that point, could identify the thinking of Jefferson. Tonight as I write this, the sights and sounds of loud (and might I add, illegal) fireworks are already filing the skies where I live. And I wonder, how many of those of us celebrating have actually looked deeply (or at all) at the words of those that debated, wrote, and fought for what we celebrate today.

So, I wanted to issue a bit of a challenge to all of us in this community or maybe a question. Besides the government teachers and lawyers out there, I wonder how many of us have actually sat down and read each part of the Constitution, the full text of The Declaration of Independence, and other cool documents written by the Federalists and the anti-Federalists? I think we all know what we think they say, but I would suggest that most people of my generation have never really read them for themselves. Since that day when I met these interesting students, I have asked many of my peers (including teachers), parents, and friends - all very highly educated people about things in the documents or if they had read them in full. It seems almost none have read them for themselves. To be perfectly honest, I hadn't read them all in full until I started teaching government and decided that it would be interesting for the students to read and discuss them in what I called inquiry groups. My own ignorance might have been due to nothing more than intellectual laziness or in a belief that the documents would probably be incredibly boring. But it was also due to never having been asked to read them. Mind you, I received my Bachelor's degree in Political Science, from the best University in the land and a Master's from that same University, in Urban Planning. Yet, as an International Relations and Theory "specialist", I was never asked to read them and never had been asked in high school either.

So what happened when I did actually sit down and really read and discuss them with my students? First, I was surprised by how short the Constitution really is and enjoyed reading all the lined out parts. It actually wasn't boring at all. It also had some things in it whose concepts I knew, but whose brilliant details I did not (some which I like, some which I don't). Among other things, the words lay out the details of the compromises that were made in order to reach agreement by those that were included and show results of movements and struggles to include more of us over time. Now, as issues arise in public discourse, especially when they go to the courts, it is nice to use the Constitution (rather than my perception of it), to note clauses that are actually relevant. It was especially fun to do this with my students.

As for the Declaration, well that one I had read all the way through. My students, however had not (even after years of U.S. History classes at different ages). My students went to the document to try to identify the dream, ideals, or goals of Jefferson and others for the country and then connect history, news, debates to those ideals. In the document they seemed to regularly identify five ideals: equality, rights, opportunity, liberty, and democracy. What great things to really think about and discuss - the many meanings of these ideals, what might move us closer to them and further away, how they may be seen differently by different people, how they may have changed over time.

One of the most amazing things I have ever read is Federalist Paper #10. Maybe it is my love of logic or mathematics (yes, I spent my first year as a math major), but I found mapping out Madison's argument for dealing with factions to be one of the most deeply brilliant things I had ever delved into. The reasoning he lays out is just beautiful and helped me understand in a very profound way the architecture behind our government. One of my favorite lines is in it: "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire".  Maybe I love it because I can write it as a ratio. But more likely because of how true it rings for me. Madison continues:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

Now, I must say that there are things in this document, and in others, that I would love to discuss and debate. Madison makes an assumption, for instance, in Fed. #10 that quite frankly I believe to be false and oh how much fun it would be to debate it with him. However, the beauty of the thought still remains.

I think that is the point. In this country, we have the opportunity to debate, reason, choose, organize, speak out, march, agree, and disagree. We get to be involved in creating the government with which we exist. However, so few have actually read for themselves, the ideas directly from the sources, that created this opportunity. Ever since that day in downtown Manhattan Beach, this lack of not knowing what these people actually wrote, has really bothered me. It is not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with the writings. After all, while many signed the Declaration of Independence, many did so reluctantly, and one actually recanted later after being captured by the British. And while there was general agreement that some sort of constitution would be needed, coming to an agreement about pretty much anything else was darn near impossible, resulting in a constitution that left many problems for future generations to tackle. We will all find things we like and don't like in the documents (as we have from the beginning). We will interpret them differently (again, as we have from the beginning). But in the end, if we are to have meaningful discourse I think we need to read first hand some of the words and thinking that put this pursuit of these ideals in motion.

To be clear, I do not want to begin a political debate here about what the ideals mean and how to achieve them. Nor is this the place to discuss what was good or bad about the ideas and decisions that were made. This is a Bruins sports blog after all and not a political blog. However, it occurred to me while thinking about this, that looking at what these people wrote, in their own words, is a profound way of honoring the courage so many showed by declaring independence and by working for it.

It also occurs to me, while not nearly as important - obviously - that this is also how we at Bruins Nation try to honor UCLA Athletics. We have a low tolerance here when someone writes without first learning what is really happening or when we speculate without acknowledging that speculation is all that we mean to do. Here at BN first time commenters, long time contributors, and frontpagers all hold each other accountable by asking for evidence rather than hearsay. I really appreciate that about this community and appreciate each time someone has pointed out to me facts not in evidence that I might be putting out there.

So, Happy Independence Day everyone! Now get out there, have a great, fun day, enjoy the fireworks, and read your foundational documents!

Go Bruins!