The 4th, the Crisis, and the Duty to Celebrate

The Fourth of July is less than 60 days away, and communities are looking hard at their budgets. The signs are ominous. This doesn’t seem like the right time to be throwing big parties.

This week, the Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross announced that it was canceling the Waterfront Festival, a summer community celebration with fireworks that it had sponsored since 1981. “We decided that responding to a fire in the middle of the night was a much better use of our resources,” said a local Red Cross’s executive director. Indeed. The total costs of the event totaled close to a quarter-million dollars. In times of financial stress, and even in better times, a service organization using resources and volunteer time to throw a community party of such magnitude seems irresponsible.

So what are we going to do about the 4th of July?

Local and state governments are facing unprecedented deficits, and individual citizens are facing the inevitability of huge tax increases to avoid having “–opoulis” appended to all of their last names before we know it. Congress and the President seem determined to pass as many budget-busting laws as they can before the angry villagers arrive with pitchforks and torches to throw them out of office, and are paying for it all by going into hock to Red China and printing Monopoly money. Might this be a year to eschew the public events, and to celebrate the founding of our country by being fiscally responsible, and to try to make sure that it can last in some recognizable form for another 234 years?

It is a true ethical conflict, with important ethical principles lined up in opposition to each other. On one side: Responsibility, Accountability, Proportion, Self-Restraint, Trustworthiness, Prudence, Competence, Diligence. On the other: Respect. Citizenship. On the face of it, it looks like an ethical mismatch.

But I don’t think so. Sometimes respect and citizenship has to prevail over all else. This may be one of those times.

Was Bob Cratchit an irresponsible fool to spend scarce money on gifts and food on Christmas, rather than to save up for better medical treatment for Tiny Tim? Or are there some things that human beings need to celebrate, have to celebrate, not for their tangible benefits but their cultural and spiritual value? Is there such a thing as a year when we can afford not to take one day to seek peace on earth, and good will toward humankind? Is it not a solemn obligation, once a year at least, to put aside partisan divisions and stand together in celebration of the miracle that is the United States of America?

By all means, cut the costs. Ask Charles Durning and Sam Waterston and Maureen McGovern to cut their fees to do the national celebration on the Mall. Do fewer fireworks, make a point of being responsible; after all, Bob Cratchit didn’t buy Tiny Tim a Ferrari for Christmas.  The Founding Fathers would approve. Some parties are for more than just fun. Even when you’re broke, it is important to remember the best of your past, thank your ancestors and mentors, uphold traditions and reaffirm core values.

After all, we’re going to need them more than ever. And with voices along the political spectrum becoming increasingly harsh, more accusing, more vicious and hateful, the Fourth of July is more important than ever too. It is worth some money—yes, even money we don’t have—to remind ourselves what we’re really arguing about, and why even that, the fact that we can argue so vigorously, is worth celebrating.

Celebrating our nation in 2010, with respect, pride and perspective won’t contribute to our problems. Re-connecting with American values, heroes and achievements will help us find solutions.

Like it always has.

3 thoughts on “The 4th, the Crisis, and the Duty to Celebrate

  1. Jack,
    Without further solidifying myself as a perpetual contrarian, I feel that I should insert myself once more into the commentary. I guess I’m curious why you’d be against spending restraints on the 4th of July when, only a year and 1/2 ago took the opposite stance in regards to President Obama’s inaugural ceremony (http://ethicsscoreboard.com/list/aig.html)?

    I realize one is a national holiday whilst the other is little more than an investiture ceremony, but from a patriotic stance, it could be easily argued that they’re of equal importance. The peaceful transition of power, after all, is one of the cornerstones of our continued republic and therefore just as important in reminding people about the wonders of freedom.

    Moreover, why does celebration of Independence Day necessarily have to be publicly sponsored? It seems unlikely that, even in the complete absence of any public events, that celebration wouldn’t go on anyways. The 4th isn’t something Americans celebrate because local governments host big parades and fireworks shows, they celebrate because they want to. In fact, some of the largest and best holiday celebrations are done with private money (or atleast, they used to be) and are no less well-attended.

    It’s sad that the only frugality being displayed by elected officials seems to be coming in the form of party-planning (as opposed to the enormous spending deficit), but I’ll take it. As you said, times ARE tough, and I can’t see how spending money we don’t have on anything non-essential could be seen as a good idea.

    Either way, I’ll still love America.

    -Neil

  2. Neil, I’m very aware of the inauguration article—I almost linked to it. I think, if you re-read the above, it says, “by all means, cut the costs.” The Obama inauguration celebration was the most expensive, by far, in our nation’s history. I think it is important to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power in our democracy, and I can see the argument for making sure that the election of our first black president was properly marked. But going hog-wild sent exactly the wrong message (though a prescient one, since this administration seems to regard all budget restraints as offensive—but I digress), while simultaneously reigning in costs, while still holding a celebration, sends the right one.

    I’d also say that the 4th, a national celebration that all citizens take part in, is in a different category entirely from an inauguration, which in its party stages is largely an elite set of events meant to reward volunteers and donors at the nation’s express.

  3. Indeed, the Obama inaugeration was a mammoth gala that rivalled major European coronations. It’s America that needs celebrating- its customs, history, heritage and values- before the swearing in of any one man, no matter how prominent his office. George Washington’s ritual occurred indoors with little fanfare. It was a simple, dignified ceremony that should have set a precedent. As for the Fourth… well, it’s mainly a matter of neighbors getting together. And that’s how it should be. Neighbors getting together, in itself, is a big factor in what America’s all about.

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