Independence Day Round-up

A couple of selections for 4th of July holiday reading.

By Nathan Pippenger

There is no shortage of essays, articles, books, treatises, pamphlets, manifestos, or speeches that would make excellent July 4th reading – and I’m sure others will offer recommendations. Here are two. (Alternatively, if you’re looking to start a holiday tradition, I suggest gathering the family around the grill and reading the Founders’ list of grievances against George III while the hot dogs are cooking.)

The first, a slightly longer piece, is a reflection by the political theorist Michael Walzer: “What Does It Mean to be an ‘American’?” It’s a deeply thought-provoking look at citizenship, identity, and the idea of “American-ness,” concerned (as Walzer’s writing often is) with the crucial American experience of immigration. Because of that experience, America, unlike many European countries, has never fully embraced a particular national “destiny” centered around one group of people. “America is still a radically unfinished society, and for now, at least, it makes sense to say that this unfinishedness is one of its distinctive features,” Walzer concludes.

The political center in this country doesn’t aim at a finished or fully coherent Americanism. Indeed, American politics, itself pluralist in character, needs a certain sort of incoherence. A radical program of Americanization would really be un-American. It isn’t inconceivable that America will one day become an American nation-state, the many giving way to the one, but that is not what it is now; nor is that its destiny. America has no singular national destiny—and to be an ‘American’ is, finally, to know that and to be more or less content with it.

The second piece is a delightful essay by the British expat Henry Fairlie (“the word ‘raffish’ might have been coined for him,” Christopher Hitchens once remarked) which first appeared in The New Republic on July 4, 1983. Fairlie, Hitchens wrote, was “one of those Englishmen who fall in love with America and never fall out again.” Asked by an American friend why he liked it here so much, Fairlie began to think:

One spring day, shortly after my arrival, I was walking down the long, broad street of a suburb, with its sweeping front lawns (all that space), its tall trees (all that sky), and its clumps of azaleas (all that color). The only other person on the street was a small boy on a tricycle. As I passed him, he said ‘Hi!’—just like that. No four-year-old boy had ever addressed me without an introduction before. Yet here was this one, with his cheerful ‘Hi!’ Recovering from the culture shock, I tried to look down stonily at his flaxen head, but instead, involuntarily, I found myself saying in return: ‘Well—hi!’ He pedaled off, apparently satisfied. He had begun my Americanization.

‘Hi!’ As I often say—for Americans do not realize it— the word is a democracy. (I come from a country where one can tell someone’s class by how they say ‘Hallo!’ or ‘Hello!’ or ‘Hullo,’ or whether they say it at all.) But anyone can say ‘Hi!’ Anyone does. Shortly after my encounter with the boy, I called on the then Suffragan Bishop of Washington. Did he greet me as the Archbishop of Canterbury would have done? No. He said, ‘Hi, Henry!’ I put it down to an aberration, an excess of Episcopalian latitudinarianism. But what about my first meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States, the Emperor of the Free World, before whom, like a Burgher of Calais, a halter round my neck, I would have sunk to my knees, pleading for a loan for my country? He held out the largest hand in Christendom, and said, ‘Hi, Henry!’

Equality is a great kind of liberty. Happy Fourth.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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