“In America, you get food to eat
Don’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet…”
Randy Newman wrote that as the opening line of his classic song, “Sail Away,” which tells the heartwarming story of sailors luring african natives aboard their ship to come to America. They neglect to mention that once the passengers arrive in the US of A, they will be sold as slaves. It’s a song dripping with irony, as almost all of Newman’s songs are, with the possible exception of the stuff he’s been grinding out for the Rodent lately.
But anyway, it’s a good place to start an examination of “the American Experiment” on this, the Fourth of July, the day when we all reflect on that which we most hold dear: beer and fireworks. For most of us, July 4 is a day to ignite massive amounts of gunpowder. But why do we do this? There is a very good reason: our fascination with fireworks stems from the fact that half of us are guys. Guys are simple. About the only things we can understand without a narrator are a fire, a fistfight, and that other F word. Fireworks are a Guy Thing. In case you didn’t know, a Guy Thing is anything that moves, makes noise, lights up, launches projectiles, or bursts into flame. If it doesn’t do any of those things, it better have chrome on it if you want to sell it to a guy.
That explains the enduring popularity of fireworks on the Fourth, but why did they shoot ’em off in the first place? How did this tradition get started? An answer can be found in the National Dirge, “The Star Spangled Banner,” a song that makes up for in incomprehensibility what it lacks in melody. The rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. From this we draw the meaning of the fireworks: we won. Setting off a Screaming Fireball is just our way of thumbing our noses at the British and saying once more the age-old words “neener neener neener.”
To which the brits reply, “that’s grand, bully for you, but what exactly have you won, old chap?”
Good question. What indeed have we won?
In a word, opportunity.
We have created a country where anyone, even Adam Sandler, can rise from nothing to wealth and fame, despite a complete lack of talent.
Prior to the coming of the USA, birth was destiny. Born a peasant, die a peasant. If you were a shoemaker’s kid, your kids would be shoemaker’s kids, whether you hated the smell of leather or not. You were born to your station and that was it for you. America changed all that.
Of the top 5% wealthiest Americans, the overwhelming majority started out life in the bottom 5%, and a surprisingly high percentage of them happen to be immigrants. America really is the Land of Opportunity, despite its many faults. We live in a place that offers so much promise that people will cross shark-infested waters on a boat made of orange crates, with people shooting at them, just to come here and be a janitor. Because a janitor here can climb as high up the ladder as he has the guts to go.
The cliche of the rise “from rags to riches” happens to be true. Some women have deliberately arranged to give birth in a log cabin so that their child might follow in Abe Lincoln’s footsteps. Some of them were extremely wealthy women, but their children could honestly say “I was born in a log cabin.” That’s the important part, after all, image is everything.
The thing to remember is that the Constitution does not grant us rights, it merely acknowledges that we have them. The Bill of Rights is nothing of the kind. It does not list our rights, it lists all the stuff the government is not allowed to do. It’s a Bill of Restrictions. Here is the Bill of Rights in plain english, for those who find it tedious the old way:
1. We can’t tell you what church to belong to. We can’t ban any religion, and we can’t make one church the Official Religion. Believe what you like, and pray wherever you feel like it.
You can say whatever you like about the government or any other subject, and we can’t stop you. Anybody can publish newspapers or books and give their opinion on anything, whether we like it or not. Anybody can stand up in public and complain about anything, and nobody can say jack about it.
You can gather together wherever and whenever you want, with whoever you want, to talk about whatever you want, even if you’re planning a revolution. If you don’t like something we’re doing, you can write, call, or show up and demand that we do something about it, without worrying about payback for it.
2. You can own guns. That will put some teeth in item 1, won’t it?
3. We can’t take over your house and make you take in soldiers as houseguests unless there’s a war on in the neighborhood.
4. We can’t go through your stuff without your permission. We can’t read your mail or your diary, and we can’t take your stuff without asking.
5. We can’t drag you into court unless we have some actual charges against you from a Grand Jury. We can’t try you twice for the same crime. We can’t make you testify against yourself, and we can’t deprive you of your life, freedom or property without going through the whole court thing. Oh, and in case you missed it last time, we can’t take your stuff without paying for it.
6. We can’t use the court system as a way to screw with you. If you’re charged with breaking the law, you get a speedy and public trial, you get an impartial jury, you get to know up front what you’re charged with, you get to confront the witnesses who accused you, you get to see the evidence against you, you get to make witnesses testify in your defense even if they don’t want to, and you can have a lawyer if you want one.
7. If you’re suing somebody, or being sued, you can have a jury hear the case, instead of taking the chance that the judge is the other guy’s golf buddy. Once the jury has ruled on a case, the court system can’t go back and try it again if they didn’t like the outcome, unless they have some legitimate reason to do so, and then they still have to follow the laws.
8. Your bail or fine has to be appropriate to the crime; we can’t hit you with bail or fines that it would be impossible for you to pay as a sneaky way of giving you life imprisonment without actually sentencing you to it. We also don’t get to torture you while you’re in jail, or execute you in some bizarre fashion for our own amusement or for the sick gratification of the bloodthirsty.
9. If we left anything out of this list, but we haven’t said you can’t do it, then it remains your right. This list does not include all your rights, just the ones we think are important enough to list specifically, mostly because they were the ones the last guys took away most often.
10. Any powers that we didn’t keep for ourselves, and didn’t declare off-limits, are left to the states and the people. That’s you. If we didn’t say we’re going to do something, and you think it needs to be done, get to it.
There, that’s not so hard, is it?
So it’s the Fourth of July, and despite the recent controversy, I think we should all stand up, put our hand over our heart, face the flag, and recite the Pledge, just the way we learned it in Third Grade:
“I pledge the legions to the flag of the Ninety States or Merica, and to the Republican, Richard Stans, one nation, under God, individual, with liberty, injustice for all.”
Happy Independence Day. And for you brits: neener neener neener!