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Pandemic, politics challenge our American experiment

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Saturday is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, but the COVID-19 pandemic has taken all the sparkle out of the sparklers, shut down all the celebratory gatherings and most fireworks will be coming out of Washington in the guise of bitter Twitter posts and political rants.

Bummer.

The Fourth of July is usually a fun day. Castalia would be having its huge party, complete with food, music, speeches, parade and evening fireworks. The Mudcats would end their game with a fiery explosion of colors over the stadium. Municipal pools would be packed on a hot day, and families throughout the country would be enjoying barbecues or other parties. Television would show the annual July Fourth concert in Washington, topped off by massive fireworks there or in New York City.

Our country’s founders, way back in 1776, expected — or hoped for — such jubilation in future years when they formally declared independence from Great Britain during the American Revolution. The delegates to the Continental Congress knew they were risking “their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor” by signing the Declaration of Independence. They expected the long war ahead and could only pray and keep fighting for the victory they eventually achieved.

But our founders knew that what they were doing was also so daring, so monumental, that future generations of Americans would honor them forever — if they were successful. John Adams predicted there would be bonfires and celebrations across the country. And by and large, through good times and bad, citizens of the United States have celebrated as proudly as Adams expected.

And for most of our 244 years, we’ve continued to have good reasons to celebrate, even through occasional wars, depressions, terrorism and political disagreements. We have always been able to count on the soundness of our government, the shared appreciation of our political and religious freedom and the glue of proud patriotism to hold us together. And fortunately, for a good many of our years, our bigger problem has not been discouragement but overconfidence and complacency that our American experiment is as eternal as it is exceptional. God has blessed America, whether we deserved it or not.

America has had its share of rough patches, especially in its earliest years. We’ve fought off the British, the Mexicans, the Indians and, once, each other. We have fought for freedom all around the world and gradually have realized, sometimes imperfectly, that freedom belongs to everyone at home. We are still learning, in fits and starts, the deeper meaning of equality and justice under the law.

Many of our continuing problems are longstanding and not unique to America. Racism, sexism, bigotry of all kinds, human greed and selfishness, crime and corruption exist all over the world and throughout history. And countless civilizations have been convinced long before modern times that each succeeding generation is going straight to hell as fast as it can.

I know all this, and I’m old enough and learned enough to have some perspective on our current state of affairs. But I can’t help feeling a little gloomy this year about our country and not nearly as optimistic as I’d like to be.

Much of my gloom, I’m sure, is the result of four months of siege and uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic that’s disrupted both our economic welfare and social routines. The genuine and serious need to protect ourselves and each other from the deadly coronavirus that has killed 125,000 Americans and 500,000 people worldwide puts a pall over everything we do. And my concern and frustration is mixed with growing anger at the people who ignore public health restrictions and risk the still spreading virus for stupid and selfish reasons.

But the virus is mindless and will eventually go away, either when it finishes burning through the population or a vaccine is discovered.

What remains, and bothers me most, are the criminally stupid politicians and other leaders, from the anti-science, uncaring president and mostly Republican governors and legislators who have totally botched the country’s response to the pandemic from its beginning to the idiots in the street walking around with guns but no masks asserting their “freedom” against commonsense public health restrictions meant to protect them.

I’m likewise appalled at the cruelty, corruption, crassness and deceit by right-wing politicians that is inflicting severe damage on our country’s basic institutions of government and deliberately turning Americans against each other. I’m even more appalled at the Americans who let them, by their consent or silence, get away with it.

The reality of COVID-19 this year prohibits our usual Fourth of July celebrations, though I’m sure we’ll find some “virtual” ways to honor the day. But our inability to celebrate doesn’t make the concepts of freedom, justice, citizenship, democracy and patriotism less important or urgent.

If Americans don’t reclaim their country and the true meaning of these words, especially in November, we may all too soon lose the freedom and the independence we say we cherish.

Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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