During the Bicentennial year of 1976, I was a 15-year-old history geek. To be alive for the 200th birthday of our nation, particularly in Philadelphia, where it all began, was intoxicating.
My mother got into the act by dressing her five kids as Revolutionary characters: I was Betsey Ross, my three younger brothers were a motley Spirit of ’76 and my 5-year-old sister was trapped in a large papier-mache version of the Liberty Bell. As memory serves, the bell part of the costume was so wide she couldn’t make it through most doorways to ask for candy.
The history of this magnificent country is so personal to me that I chose to devote my life to helping create new Americans through my immigration law practice. Standing beside someone who was born in another land but has jumped through difficult obstacles to take an oath to this one is a sobering, humbling experience. I’d recommend it if you’re suffering from cynicism or worse, anti-Americanism.
In fact, I’d recommend a trip to one of those naturalization ceremonies for many of the people I saw whining on social media about how they didn’t feel like celebrating on July 4. You know the ones I’m talking about, men and women who assumed that world-weary attitude about how flawed we were, how much inequity there was, how cruel it was to erase rights (that never existed in the first place, Planned Parenthood) and how ridiculous those brainwashed patriots were. Gun violence, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, transphobia, classism, and all of the other ills in Pandora’s Tupperware were trotted out to remind the rest of us that we were idiots to raise the flag, place hand on heart, and give thanks.
The Constitution gives those whiners the right to dissent, and to communicate their grievances to the masses in whatever way they choose, as long as it doesn’t foment violence. There was no point in trying to tell these wizened, bitter folk that the only reason they are able to criticize this country is that they live in it. The only reason they have the liberty to malign the flag or the country’s founding documents is they live in a country that is constantly looking in a mirror and acknowledging its flaws.
Many of the men and women who take that oath to protect, preserve, serve and defend this country at those naturalization hearings have come from places where speaking out will get you a cot in a gulag, or a premature grave. That’s not to say that we should remain silent in the face of injustice. Expression is the keystone of our liberties, and censorship (including self-censorship) is inimical to freedom. Words, in the right mouths and from the right pens, are powerful things.
But there is such a thing as context, and a lot of these grievance mongers are tone-deaf. Women who lament the fact that they can no longer access abortion rights wherever and whenever they want should look to their sisters in Afghanistan, and choose their words wisely. Gun control advocates who support draconian measures to limit gun ownership should consider what happens when the government determines exactly how we can and should defend ourselves, especially in places like Philadelphia, where criminals will always have access to guns. People who accuse Supreme Court justices of imposing their religious beliefs on the “rest of us” should look to China, where the government actually does impose its “non-belief” on its citizens.
Maybe I’ve been handling asylum cases for too long. Perhaps my view of this country and its meaning is mired in the sepia-toned photos of Main Street, Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra films. But maybe I’m the one who’s truly representative of the majority of Americans — people who recognize the shortcomings, who aren’t blind to the flaws and who still have the ability to understand how very blessed we are.