The Patriotic Citizen
Last week people came to our town by the tens of thousands to celebrate Independence Day. Truth be told, most came to be awed by the fireworks display, rather than to contemplate the words that Jefferson wrote on that July day in 1776.
These words still stir my heart: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But before we put Jefferson on too high a perch, we must take a moment to remember that his words rang hollow to the 600 human beings he owned during his lifetime. Furthermore, he thought that should slaves ever be freed, they should be relocated far from whites because the two races could not live in the same government. Forgive the man his moral blindness on this issue; let us try to live by his words today.
Back to the matter at hand: What should the most patriotic day on our calendar inspire us to believe, to do as Americans, and as residents of Laguna Beach? A good place to start is Mark Twain, who believed patriotism is supporting your country all the time and your government when it deserves it. A patriot allows others to live freely as long as they do no harm to others. A patriot speaks out against injustice. A patriot embraces the duties of citizenship.
I firmly believe one cannot be a patriotic American if they ignore their civic responsibilities. Of course, one should follow national and international events, but often the local aspect of citizenship is ignored. Do we in Laguna know who our state senator is? Our Assembly representative? Do you know where they stand on the issues that affect our community? Do you go to city council meetings or school board meetings? Or at least watch them on Cox? There are so many hot button issues that affect out town and its children that to ignore them is a dereliction of our duties as citizens. Do you write letters to this paper to express your point of view on these and other issues? Tip O’Neill said,” All politics is local.” I believe he was on to something.
Do you attend other meetings that deal with the problems facing our city? Many Saturdays at the Wells Fargo Bank there were meetings, often hosted by Peter Blake, that wrestled with the problem of the homelessness. Did you ever drop in on these? Do you volunteer to aid those institutions in our town that could use your help? Do you tell our cops and fire fighters what a great job they are doing when you see them in town? Do you make an effort to get involved, to give of yourself? I believe the patriotic citizen does.
I can hear some say,” Oh, I am too busy, I pay my taxes, take care of my family and that’s good enough.” Allow me to present to you a portion of one of my favorite speeches. It comes from Pericles, the leader of Athens during its Golden Age. He is speaking at the funeral of soldiers who fell in the war with Sparta. “…we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.”
Before leaving this topic of patriotism, I would like to offer a warning not just to folks in Laguna Beach, but to all Americans. More and more I see patriotism being conflated with nationalism. The latter is a slippery slope that can lead to jingoism and ethnocentrism. Nationalism helped Europe blunder into the First World War. Ultra-nationalism in Germany, Japan, and Italy led to the horror of the Second World War. Today, in places like Hungary, Poland and Austria, nationalism is raising its ugly head. We should heed the warning of George Orwell who described nationalism as “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.” No good can come of this.
So, Independence Day has come and gone. I hope in these divisive times, we may come together to honor our country in the true spirit of patriotism. It starts with you and me.
James Utt is the author of “Laguna Tales and Boomer Wails.” He hopes you take the time to read the full text of Pericles’ funeral oration.