Tom Finneran: Happy Birthday, America

Friday, July 05, 2013


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“Happy birthday to you…” Thank the Lord you don’t have to hear me sing the words. My warbling can empty a room pretty quickly. And so our country grows another year older. What are the words of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song about life? “You load sixteen tons, what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt.” Seems about right to me.

Before I get all cranky complaining about the looming demise of America, let me acknowledge two things. First, for those of us who live here, we should never forget that we are the luckiest people alive. Whether by accident of birth or some part of God’s divine plan we live in America. We’re blessed. And damn lucky. Second, for all our country’s challenges and frustrations, somewhere around 98% of the world’s population would trade places with us in two seconds flat. Perhaps those folks know something that we don’t know, or maybe we simply lack a true appreciation for what has always seemed our birthright: freedom, opportunity, and an exceptional standard of living.

Yet, I’m torn between a paean to America’s genius and its immense good fortune or a screed about its accelerating decline. Because birthdays are happy occasions, I’ll choose the former, making a note to myself that a good old-fashioned screed is owed, all in due time.

First in importance, let’s recognize that the experiment of America, an experiment in self-government, was a radical idea which has worked. The notion of ordinary people governing themselves was such a stark departure from the norm that the rest of the cognizant, “civilized” world was aghast. Yet the Constitution of the United States, (based upon the Constitution of Massachusetts by the way), has been used as the basis of other national constitutions for a couple of centuries now. Thus, our infant nation, blessed by the insulation of two vast oceans, had ample time to demonstrate that a constitutional republic was not doomed to fail.

Most striking of all, to people around the world, is the peaceful transfer of political power which occurs here every two to four years. It is bewildering to people who have experienced dictatorships, civil wars, military coups, or soldiers and tanks in the streets of their capitals. Consider the presidency of the United States, the single most powerful position in the world. I happened to be overseas in the year 2000 when George W. Bush and Al Gore had their razor-thin election for the presidency. As an American it was generally interesting to follow the recount in Florida, to learn of hanging chads and dimpled punch cards. I knew people who were involved in the recount process and that the final outcome was likely to be decided in a courtroom. Yet I also knew that virtually every American citizen continued to go about their daily routine of work and family life, and that, whatever the outcome, this immense power of the presidency would pass peacefully from President Clinton to his successor. There would be no sudden appearance of the army in Washington D.C., no cabal of generals announcing a takeover of the government. Nor would the thousands of political volunteers, some of them experiencing bitter heart-breaking disappointment, turn into violent gangs exacting some form of revenge and retribution upon their opponents. Rather, Americans across the land went about their business and accepted the result.

And while Americans showed their casual acceptance, people in other countries were obsessed and amazed that such power could pass from one person and party to another person and party without violence and bloodshed. That peaceful pursuit and transfer of political power is an immeasurable blessing to every generation of Americans.

So too is the blessing of a free and appropriate public education. John Adams, perhaps more than anyone else in our storied history, saw the essential link between an educated and literate citizenry and the responsibilities of self-government. To Adams, it was simply inconceivable that the American experiment in governance could succeed if education was to be reserved solely for the wealthy and privileged in our midst. And while we might carp about the exclusion of women, blacks, and the non-propertied from the initial exercise of the vote, Adams trusted that the moral and spiritual forces embodied in a free, educated, and growing society would demolish the obstacles to full participation.

Finally, the blessings of freedom of worship are of inestimable value. Freedom to believe, or not believe and freedom from an established “state” religion were largely heretical thoughts back then. Today, as we witness the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, when we ponder the violence visited upon Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and the various Muslim sects upon each other and upon “non-believers”, we might thank our stars and our God for the wisdom that blessed our founding.

Happy birthday, America. You are still the world’s greatest hope.


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