Happy Fourth of July! The Fourth is always a grand day to consider what a remarkable nation we live in. I’m not fond of the language of “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that our nation is a “shining city on a hill,” chosen by God for some profound spiritual purpose. After He chose the Jews, millennia ago, I suspect that He got out of the business of picking winners and losers. And, besides, even if He did pick us, it’s tacky to talk about it too much.
Still, that shouldn’t stop us from using the Fourth to celebrate some of the ways in which we’ve made ourselves exceptional. Here are some suggestions for family activities for the Fourth: One: Burn a flag in your backyard. Actually, don’t. But spend a few minutes thinking about the remarkable fact that our nation places higher value on our freedoms than on the symbols that represent them.
Instead of burning the flag, take an hour on the Fourth to ponder the oral argument that took place before the Supreme Court on March 21, 1989, in Texas v. Gregory Lee Johnson.
Johnson was an American communist who burned a flag at a political protest in Dallas in 1984. He was charged with “desecration of a venerated object” and sentenced to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine.
The case reached the Supreme Court. The oral argument in Texas v. Johnson is an impressive tribute to the care and precision that the justices, liberal and conservative, apply to the cases before them in the effort to discern what’s right. Does desecration decrease or enhance a flag’s symbolic value? What if it’s a state flag? A picture of a flag? What if the flag’s stolen? Eventually the court ruled that flag-burning is political speech, and that Johnson’s unseemly actions were protected by the First Amendment. Ironically, we have the right to desecrate one of the primary symbols of our rights.
This isn’t the case everywhere. In France and Turkey a flag desecrater can be sent to prison for six months and in Germany for up to five years. I like our system better. What a constitution!
Two: Here’s another activity for the Fourth: Locate your voter’s registration card, resolve to vote in November, and let your kids know that’s what you plan to do. That card is the key to our democracy. Of course, it makes you liable for jury duty, but that’s another American experience that should be prized more than dreaded.
The only time I served on a jury was a testament to our exceptional system. A kid had beaten up his girlfriend after both of them had had too much to drink. The crime isn’t trivial, but it happens thousands of times every day across the world. It’s an exceptional society that is willing to expend the resources of three lawyers, a judge, a bailiff, a court reporter, a police officer, a crime scene investigator, a translator, jury room staff, various clerks and secretaries, and two full days in the lives of six ordinary citizens to ensure justice in connection with a half-hour incident that’s more than a year old. Only in America? Not quite, maybe, but it’s worth celebrating.
Finally: The Fourth is a good day to confirm our commitment to the civilizing social contract that makes us a nation. For example, if you take your family for a drive on the Fourth, consider careful observance of the speed limit, and don’t drink any adult beverages en route. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Fourth of July weekend is the deadliest of the year, worse than New Year’s Eve, and ordinarily alcohol is involved in 50 percent of the fatal crashes.
It will be healthy for our kids to see all of us honoring our national covenant in the interest of public safety.
In fact, in many ways, we are an exceptional nation. Celebrate it!
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected]