The Fourth of July is nigh, and it looks like a full-on celebration is in the making. Family is coming, pies are baking, parades will march through local streets and fireworks will light up the night sky. Yet what should be a joyous return to something like normal has a pall over it.
There is the war in Ukraine, and if that doesn’t make us appreciate our freedom, what will? The choice facing our own government is whether to allow the usurpation of one country by another, or risk starting a nuclear war. We can be thankful that we are not the ones making that decision and cut a little slack to the ones who are.
Then there is mass famine, climate change flooding our coasts and roasting half the country, the new awareness of vulnerability to microbes far and near and our own quickening political implosion.
The Fourth of July is the quintessential celebration of freedom. It displays to the world our belief that the people of a country should be self-governing, and that the purpose of government is to serve the people. That belief, a sacred tenet of American democracy, is being called into question like never before.
“Freedom” is no longer a shared belief in America. The multitude of groups that espouse it each have their own definition of freedom and their own litmus tests as to whether you are sufficiently aligned with their definitions to be an acceptable affiliate of their group.
What is so deeply un-American about all this is that if you don’t conform to a particular group’s definition of freedom you are, well, un-American. In the country that gave every individual the right to his or her opinions, it is now demanded of us that we agree wholesale with a group’s ideology or we are not just on the outs with that group, we are not fit to be a citizen of this country.
What once was a crank on a street corner, holding forth about UFOs or government conspiracies, now has a national platform thanks to social media, and hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens give credibility to people who were once outliers. The media, who once ignored patently disprovable theories, now gives 24/7 play to the weirdest. People being people, some are persuaded.
We are no longer a collection of people free to believe what we choose. If we do not believe a particular group’s definition of freedom, we are anti-freedom. We do not get to have our own opinion. It is buy into a specific definition or be accused of being un-American. Our images and home addresses are publicized. Our children are threatened. Can you imagine that we have reached the point where a veterinarian’s children are threatened because of a dispute over animal care? Who are these people?
Anyone who speaks out about any group ideology is labeled un-American. We are no longer a country where we can have an opinion. Our opinions must conform to someone else’s ideas or we are harassed and threatened, and so are our spouses and children. Freedom? We are increasingly inveighed to toe an ideological line or be cast out of society.
We are lucky in Maine. Here, we can still rub elbows with people in our community who differ from us socially, economically and ideologically. We can still live harmoniously with people who do not vote the way we do, do not think the way we do and do not live the way we do. Hit black ice and slide into a ditch? Ideology be damned, you will be back on the road in no time with the help of a Mainer with all the right tools in his pickup truck.
It’s troubling, though, this demand for conformity in one’s definition of freedom. You must see it the way some self-designated “patriot” group sees it, or you are wrong. If ever there were a construct at odds with the founding principles of our country, this is it. If ever there was an anti-patriotic sentiment, this is it. The bedrock of our democracy is that we are entitled to our own opinions.
Now we must conform. If we choose to identify with a particular political party, we must swallow their ideology wholesale, without question. What happened to the “world’s greatest experiment” in democracy? Now we must conform to the opinions of the group with which we align.
This is not the America that was the envy of the world. This is an America where we are required to conform with someone else’s opinions rather than having our own. The Fourth of July should remind us that no one gets to tell us what freedom means. Our opinions may be debated, but they should never be suppressed.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.