"I wouldn't give you 2 cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too." — James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)
Having the Fourth of July fall on a Wednesday this year creates one of two oddities for most working folks — either your celebration of our nation's independence is uncommonly short (just a Hump Day afternoon and evening, basically) or it runs half a week (midweek through Sunday). I know which I'd choose, given my druthers, but I'll give you one guess which I got.
Still, I have nothing against those of you still reveling by the pool, grilling out and shooting off firecrackers all this extended holiday weekend while I'm at work. Really. Nothing at all.
But I do have something for you. A quiet reminder: We celebrate a lot more than fireworks and parades on this most American of holidays.
Sure, we celebrate our freedom. But it's more than that. We set aside a date on the calendar in order that we would forever remember an event 242 years ago that was as simple as the signing of a piece of paper (OK, it was actually adopted on July 4; it took nearly a month for the official copy to be signed), and at the same time infinitely more complicated for all present and their descendents. The very act of the delegates of the Second Continental Congress putting their names on the Declaration of Independence signified the signing of their own death warrants should the colonies' cause fail.
And the issue was far from decided in the summer of 1776. In fact, the 13 colonies represented in that fabled document were laying claim to something they did not actually have yet, nor even a prayer of living to see, but would have to win by force of arms against the greatest military power in the world at that time — a potentially suicidal long-shot gamble by anyone's standards.
So the Declaration of Independence was worth no more than the parchment it was written on at the time, right?
Not at all. Not only was it a much-needed morale booster at an extremely crucial moment in history, not to mention a justly deserved black eye for His Majesty King George III of England, but it also marked the first time that all 13 colonies — basically the United States in its infancy — stood up together and acted as one.
That's really what was so significant about this date, even before it became officially recognized as our national birthday — and it's what we most need to be reminded about today, because it's essential to who we are as Americans and what we are becoming as a country.
We became a nation when we the people stood up together, for each other, and took our general welfare — meaning the security and human dignity of all of us — as our common cause against oppression and injustice. We will only cease being that great nation our Founding Fathers conceived when we stop standing up for each other and turn against one another instead.
That thought leapt to mind this past week when I read of the Virginia restaurant owner who refused service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, based on her affiliation with the Trump administration. Folks, you don't have to be a longtime reader of Frank's Faves to know I'm not on Donald Trump's Christmas card list. But this story bothered me immensely. Not as a Republican nor a Democrat, nor even an independent — but as an American. Is this now how one American treats another American? I not only refuse to serve dinner to this fellow heir of liberty based solely on the politics of her employer, but I refuse her business — i.e., to make money off her? How un-American is that?
Some justified this act of inhospitality based on the incivility practiced by Sanders and her boss and others in his administration. The old they-did-it-first defense. Bunk, folks. That excuse went out in kindergarten. The restaurateur's own defense was that she was acting on the principle of her own political beliefs. I don't doubt she actually saw herself as a practicing patriot for taking such a stand. If so, I fear patriotism may not mean what it used to. And it should. Today's patriots — and that includes all who would assume the mantle of leadership in a democracy — would do well to study the example of that room full of Founding Fathers 242 years ago who put aside the vast differences of their politics and their backgrounds and their beliefs and stood up as one, not for themselves, but for each other.
Just as the other restaurant patrons should have done that day — yup, just stood up and walked out as one — when they saw an injustice being done to one of them, and saw it as being done to them all. In my mind, and quite possibly in those of the men who signed that Declaration of Independence, that's patriotism.
Need a refresher? There are a few movies I recall that seem to have gotten the concept right and illustrated it in fine, dramatic fashion, and I heartily recommend them for your post-July Fourth entertainment. What so proudly I hail as:
MY FIVE FAVORITE MOVIES THAT GET PATRIOTISM RIGHT
— "Lincoln" (2012). Patriotic movies are often described as those that make you feel good about being an American. This one lets you in on what it feels like to be a good American — even the best — even when that's not a good feeling. Director Steven Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis give us an Honest Abe who is forced to wheel and deal a bit to win the votes to abolish slavery, even as he must bear the terrible yoke of responsibility for the bloodiest war in U.S. history, and does it all with a wry sense of humor, right up until our last sight of him as he heads out for Ford's Theatre, leaving his hated leather gloves by the door and the parting quip, "I suppose it's time to go, though I would rather stay." His truth does indeed go marching on.
— "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942). Few songwriters evoke more red, white and blue fervor than George M. Cohan — think "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Over There" and "The Yankee Doodle Boy." James Cagney tap-dances his way through this musical biopic that makes the most of Cohan's rags-to-riches life and his songs' ability both to embody and uplift the American spirit. And keeps you humming long afterward.
— "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011). Yes, this is a superhero movie based on a comic book character. Don't let that fool you. Chris Evans as the title shield-bearer doesn't start out that way. He's a sickly, puny would-be military recruit who wants so badly to serve his country in wartime that he volunteers for a "super-soldier" experiment that changes his life forever. He loses a good friend to the same experiment, and winds up 70 years beyond his own time and outliving his lady love as a result. All for a patriotic self-sacrifice he would make again in a heartbeat. It's that quality that earns him his title, not the physique or the shield (though both are pretty cool, too).
— "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). Yes, you may recall this movie appearing on my list of favorite Independence Day movies a few years ago, which ordinarily would mean I would prefer to avoid repeating it on this list. But how can I when director Frank Capra's classic puts some of the best common-sense lines about freedom and democracy into James Stewart's mouth that were ever spoken? One of the best: "Great principles don't get lost once they come to light; they're right here! You just have to see them again." Plenty to see and hear in this one.
— "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016). If you must have a war movie to educate you on patriotism — I mean, besides the ones I've recommended in this space in years past — try this one. Director Mel Gibson gives us a shockingly violent, yet mostly accurate biopic of a true American hero, Pfc. Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Medal of Honor as a World War II combat medic despite refusing to bear arms on religious grounds. See? You don't have to kill or even be rude to be a patriot; only stand up and serve. Even if it's under fire.