The event we celebrate on the Fourth of July is not America’s victory over Great Britain. The British weren’t defeated until September 3, 1783.
July 4, 1776 is the day the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. That’s the day we formally declared ourselves independent and laid out the egalitarian principles on which our country was founded. This date marks a triumph of awareness, the realization that freedom and justice are our human birthright.
July 4, not September 3, is celebrated as our Day of Independence. Why? Because independence begins with an insight, a realization so powerful that it allows us to achieve the seemingly impossible. The insights in the Declaration of Independence allowed the colonists to defeat an empire.
Victory was born when we realized our natural state and claimed it for ourselves:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident …”
We became free when we discovered the self-evident truth of our freedom. In the Declaration of Independence, this realization is presented as inseparable from the knowledge that all human beings are created equal. The principles of individual freedom and social justice are indivisible and inalienable.
What does that mean today? In the age of corporatized politics, it means we can’t depend on leaders or parties. We’re paying the price today for failing to fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s desire to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
Our country resisted Britain’s state-sanctioned monopolies in 1776. Today’s government-sanctioned corporations are found on Wall Street, not by the chartered Thames. The spirit of the East India Company lives in the five banks that now control nearly 96 percent of the derivatives market in this country today, and in the media monopolies that distort our perception of reality and limit our vision of the possible.
Economic injustice and personal bigotry will persist as long as wealthy contributors corrupt our political process. Politicians in this post-Citizens United, post-McCutcheon world are either limited by corporate power or prostituted to it.
Some of those politicians will help in the struggle to reclaim our democracy. But they can’t lead it. We have to do that. We must work around, as well as within, the electoral system. That means getting the truth out, speaking for the majority’s viewpoint, and outlining the real choices we face.
Leaders? There are some inspiring new leaders out there. And if we build the politics we need, more will come. But it starts with us.
In the end, the obstacle we face is dependence itself. If we depend on politicians or anyone else to do what needs to be done, we have lost our independence. If we go too far in the other direction – if we reflexively dismiss all political action as pointless or irrelevant – we’ve become dependent on an escapist fantasy whose sole goal becomes the maintenance of our own sense of moral superiority.
True independence begins with a state of mind that says that our rights are ours to uphold and defend, a state of mind that rests in the field of action while remaining unattached to smaller allegiances of self-identification or self-justification.
On July 4, the Founders declared that governments must “derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” Only we, the governed, can ensure that this consent is given in a democratic and knowledgeable way.
There are those who remain attached to the idea that revolutions, and independence itself, are the fruits of violence. But profound revolutions are born of insight, not violence. We need a revolution that renews and restores the insights of the Founders, not one which overthrows it in a media-induced mob frenzy.
Their dream is not yet fully realized. Today’s system must change. That begins with a vision of something better. “Revolution is not the uprising against preexisting order,” said the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset, “but the setting up of a new order contradictory to the traditional one.”
We have to imagine what our leaders can’t or won’t imagine, then work to bring it into being. “What is now proved,” said William Blake, “was once only imagined.”
We need the kind of independence the Founders had, the kind that is felt deep in the marrow and calls the independent spirit into action. Because we need action – independent action, action that doesn’t depend on leaders or parties, action that rejects even the most well-informed pessimism or the deepest despair.
That’s how this country came into being. The spirit of independent action conquered slavery, created the labor movement, expanded voting rights, and launched the ongoing fight for economic justice.
The challenges have never been greater. The planet itself is in peril. Global wealth is endangering the well-being of the human majority and corporations are more powerful than ever. Independence from the corporate state seems impossible to achieve. Victory seems unthinkable, almost revolutionary. But we’ve done great things before, and we can again.
We can. We must. We will.
Happy Independence Day.
(Some portions of this essay were revised and adapted from past years’ Fourth of July commentaries.)