"I will celebrate freedom by shooting off my fireworks at whatever time I please, anywhere I please. And I will leave the leftovers where they lay, as this is still America, the land of the free."
This was one of the "Page Too" comments in the Rapid City Journal on July 5. Just to give this person the benefit of the doubt, it's possible that the comment was intended as sarcasm.
I hope so. If not, the comment is confusing freedom and independence.
The Fourth of July isn't "Freedom Day," it's "Independence Day." It celebrates our emancipation from the mother country, our choice to make our own decisions and govern ourselves. It marks our adulthood as a nation.
Freedom to do whatever you want with no consideration for your neighbors, and to let someone else clean up your mess, is the freedom of a child. As adults, we may look back wistfully on what we see as the carefree days of childhood. No job to go to, no mortgages or money worries, no adult responsibilities, no need to worry about anyone except ourselves. That "carefree" existence has a certain level of freedom, but it certainly is not independence.
True, children are free to be irresponsible because their parents take care of their needs. Their parents also control where and how they live, what they eat, what they wear, when they go to bed, and whether they get to spend eight hours a day playing video games.
It is dangerously shortsighted to define "freedom" as the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and to let someone else be responsible for cleaning up the mess or paying the bills. That may feel like freedom in the short term, but it is the exact opposite of independence. Insisting on such illusory freedom is claiming the "right" to be taken care of like a child—which is a certain route to losing freedom altogether.
Being independent, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam Webster as "not subject to control by others: self-governing." Independence is the right to accept responsibility for ourselves and interact with those around us with the mutual respect of equals.
This year I spent the Fourth of July in Lincoln, Nebraska, where unrestricted fireworks were allowed. On the evenings of both July 3rd and July 4th, the whole town was lit up with amateur fireworks displays. Street corners were riotous with sparklers, bottle rockets, mortar shells, flaming hot air balloons, and the odd exploding watermelon. It was freedom, all right—noisy, dramatic, exciting, beautiful, occasionally obnoxious, and more than a little frightening.
And, of course, messy. The next morning, when I went for a walk, the streets were covered with scorch marks and littered with cardboard, fuses, and other remnants of thousands of fireworks. A few places had been cleaned up, and I saw two men busy with brooms and garbage cans. On many more street corners, though, the celebrators had obviously chosen to "leave the leftovers where they lay."
In front of one house, three little boys aged about six to ten, were out with a broom, a shovel, and a trash can. They were cleaning up their mess with considerably less enthusiasm than they must have shown for shooting off the fireworks the night before. They probably didn't think of themselves as fortunate.
Yet, whether they appreciated it or not, they were being taught an essential lesson. They were learning the difference between childish freedom and grown-up independence. It's an important distinction for each of us to practice as Americans, not just on Independence Day, but every day.
(This column was first published in the Rapid City Journal as a guest editorial on July 9, 2011.)