Living the Lie of Independence

July 4 has come and gone again. All day my thoughts meandered through a muggy haze of irony.

Maybe it was the week of increasingly prolific explosions giving suburbia a nightly theatrical production of the dangerous conditions that inspire Syrian and Palestinian families to seek refuge so far from their ancestral homes. Or maybe it was the consideration that the authority “we” have shaken off has left us free to accept a greater share of the responsibility for the abuses and restrictions which are certainly as perverse and pervasive today as they were under King George, almost 250 years ago.

We make “independence” into such a big word. It is a totem, and a farce. In our adolescent rebel pride, we celebrate war, as if it is not fundamentally tragic; and we celebrate our power over others — such as it is — as if we are not wedded to all the world.

Independence, as we have learned to appreciate it, is a black-and-white cartoon of disregard for other people and denial of the consequences of our choices. The reality our modern ideal caricatures is much more self-conscious and, hence, more modest in its assertiveness. Real independence is not a quality of character, but rather a relationship to a specific other. We are only ever independent of specific things or people we might otherwise be dependent on. And there are always other people and things on which we do very much depend.

This more tempered notion of independence may well have been a common understanding in 1776, or at other times since then. Today, we are tempted by the simplicity of the soundbites and slogans of our cultural discourse not to think too deeply about what we’re saying. We are too simple to know ourselves beyond the image we have crafted to call us toward our dreams… and to hide our most glaring flaws

Maybe as this nation matures we will come to see ourselves and our role in the world more sanely. Maybe our tolerance for absurdity is nearing its limit. Whatever the case, we are all in this together, until death. For better or for worse, Independence Day is coming around again, and we would do well to be prepared for it.


  1. much needed critical reflection on a holiday many people blindly celebrate – and to think that our ‘theatrical’ vaunting (i.e. blowing shit up) is inconsiderate even of contemporary american soldiers (many w ptsd) for whom reliving war is extremely painful.

    1. I wonder how many of us have never even considered that the fancy fireworks displays are symbolic of “… the bombs bursting in air….”

  2. An eloquent statement on the matter. It’s an interesting conundrum I find myself in… how to love my country, when it is the source of such suffering and despair in this world. I do love the idea so many of us were taught as children about what we are supposed to be, but have awakened from that dream to the reality of our troubled state. I wonder if we can move forward as a nation, acknowledging the failures, transgressions, atrocities, while working to build a new vision of a peaceful, diverse, and loving national identity.

  3. If we do, I suspect it will be because, somehow, more and more of us outgrow the need to hide from the uglier realities of our cultural life behind the mask of a megalomaniacal myth. American history, as popularly developed here, is like the makeup we put on before we can stand to look at ourselves.

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