"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Thoughts on Independence Day

Thoughts on Independence Day

With the sixty power lens on the spotting scope, I have a pretty good view of the neighbors and their activities. I’ve been watching them for thirty years, though sometimes they aren’t home for years at a time, and I wonder what they’re doing during those absences, and what keeps them away. I don’t ask—we don’t speak the same language and I prefer to keep my distance.

Fourth of July evening they were once again dining "a fresco." I watched the mother—or maybe it was the father, it’s hard to tell—carving up the entrĂ©e and serving it to her young one. My teenaged neighbor Miles, who lives much closer to them, tells me they have two, but I’ve seen only one, or perhaps only one at a time.

Anyway, there she was, momma golden eagle ripping and tearing her prey apart and carefully inserting it in the wide-open beak of the gray and white eaglet in the nest. The adult is hard to see unless she moves, as she blends in perfectly with the rock face where the nest is built in a small nook about half-way up the sheer wall. In a few weeks, the chick will have fully fledged and be independent, able to fly and hunt on its own.

Independent, but not on Independence Day.

As is my custom every Fourth of July, I re-read the United State’s Declaration of Independence of 1776. The original document, badly faded and almost illegible, is now two hundred and thirty-two years old. I had always thought of those events as happening in the impossibly distant past, until I realized that at my age of 66, that “past” represented only four of my lifetimes. I guess it wasn’t that long after all.

A couple months ago I watched the HBO series “John Adams,” a biography of our second president’s life that dwelled on his part in the Continental Congress and the document that declared our freedom from Britain. The eloquent and erudite words written by Thomas Jefferson have the ability to capture the imagination, and the realization that it was drafted in slightly more than two weeks can boggle that imagination. All that, without the aid of a word processor to cut and paste, no “delete” or “backspace” keys, no ball point pens, pencils or erasers. All that with quill and ink.

The HBO series impressed upon me one astonishing fact: how very tenuous was our independence, not only in the war that continued against the almost invincible British army, but afterwards in the sometimes stumbling search for how this country was to be governed. Adams and Jefferson, once the fondest of friends, became bitter enemies when their views on the strength of the federal government moved in opposite directions.

During the month of May, I was in New Zealand and one of a group of six American tourists seated for dinner in the home of New Zealanders Brian and Diane. Before us on a nicely appointed table were typical foods of their country—green-lipped mussels, roast hogget (meat from a two-year-old lamb), an assortment of various potatoes and winter vegetables. The food was wonderful. What made the dinner so special, though, was the subject of conversation introduced by a somewhat impish Brian: the U.S. and its politics, its actions in the world, and its public image.

First, Brian asked our opinions of the current candidates for the U.S. presidency. At that time, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling for the Democratic party’s nomination, and McCain was the Republican candidate. The six of us expressed our opinions, and the doubt in the course our country is taking was evident, as was the hesitancy to change that course abruptly. Brian stated his preference: Obama.

His reasons were many, having to do with Iraq, America’s treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans, and the world-wide impact such a candidate would make.

“Americans are arrogant,” he stated. Under the right circumstances, those could be fighting words, and I glanced at Brian to read his eyes. They showed that he loved a lively conversation.

He is a nice-looking man, obviously successful in his business, knowledgeable and informed, and well-traveled. The fact that he knew the names of our political candidates, and that I knew nothing of his country’s leader, not even his name, was not lost on me. I couldn’t even use the remoteness of my residence in rural Alaska as an excuse for that failing.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “We like Americans. We wouldn’t have hosted you if we didn’t. But your country is viewed world-wide as arrogant. It should clean up its own backyard before it interferes, or tells other countries how to live.” I have paraphrased his words as I don’t recall the exact ones he used, but their meaning is exact. Everyone at the table concurred to some degree. After Sept. 11, he went on, America had world-wide sympathy. Then, he said, we messed it all up.

So I’ve been thinking about that, off and on, since my return. I read about New Zealand, and learned of that country’s mistreatment of the indigenous Maori. Before visiting New Zealand, we were in Australia, and heard about that country’s mistreatment of the original people, the Aboriginals. After New Zealand we went to Fiji, where the clash between the first people, the Fijians, and the workers brought in from India by Britain, the Indo-Fijians, was more than evident. It permeated the very atmosphere of that tropical island, so much so that walking through the main shopping district of Nadi can be a daunting experience, and one best done in a group during daylight hours. I walked solo for a half block before I returned to the safety of my group.

Mistreatment of the first peoples, it seems, is a world-wide shame, not limited to the U.S. I thought of the economic crisis in this country at this time, with energy prices demanding a change in our lifestyles and foretelling severe problems for years to come. I thought of the efforts we’re making in bio-fuels and alternative energies. I thought of the accusations that our research into bio-fuels is causing food prices around the globe to stampede upwards. I also thought of how the U.S. has been criticized for not intervening in the undeclared genocide in Darfur.

As for keeping our noses where they belong, and not interfering in political problems of other countries, two articles in this morning’s newspaper caught my eye. The first was a story about 1215 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who participated in a mass re-enlistment ceremony in Baghdad. The story quoted Gen. David Petraeus, who is the current head of the coalition forces in Iraq and who administered the re-upping oath, as saying that the troops’ commitment and sacrifice have given the Iraqi people “the most precious gift…freedom.”

Also mentioned in the article were the re-enlistment bonuses of up to $75,000, depending on rank and several other factors, as well as the fact that re-enlisting while serving in a war zone makes the bonuses tax-free. Cynical? Perhaps.

Then the second article got my attention. It was written by Steven Erlanger of The New York Times. The story was buried on page four--below the story about the death of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, below the story of how current energy prices are hurting senior citizens, below the story about how western governments are ignoring ruling despots in Africa with whom they are economically aligned while at the same time criticizing Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, and even below the one about two guys tying after eating fifty-nine hot dogs each and needing a five hot dog run-off.

After all that was the story about the rescue of hostages held by Columbian guerillas for six years. Two days previous, former French presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three Americans and eleven Columbians had been freed in a complicated and dangerous ruse successfully pulled off by Columbian forces that had infiltrated the FARC rebels.

When her plane landed in France, Betancourt was met by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “I owe everything to France,” she stated publicly, thanking Sarkozy and the French people and asking for the president’s continued efforts in freeing the remaining seven hundred hostages.

The final paragraph of the article, one that could easily be overlooked by readers scanning stories, or eliminated by space constrictions imposed by the necessity for advertising space, read like this: “Sarkozy’s role became a topic of heated internal politics… The rescue operation, carried out by Columbian forces with American guidance, was done with no French involvement and no forewarning to Paris.”


July 5, 2008


  1. You are quite right in pointing out that mistreatment of first peoples is not only an American problem. It has happened in every colonized country. Being from Mexico, I can attest to that. The men who came from Spain to conquer Mexico were for the most part ruthless adventurers seeking to get rich quick, and ex-prisoners who bought their freedom with their commitment to conquer the "Indians". I believe the United States, New Zealand, Australia and other British colonies were also populated by ruffians of the same ilk. It's no wonder then, that the United States' national psyche has been formed with a good wallop of arrogance.

    It's high time that we Americans should exert a different kind of leadership in the world, one based on compassion and a commitment to lend a helping hand to those in need, instead of "leadership" based greed or national convenience. I agree with your New Zealander friend Brian: Barack Obama is the only candidate that can correct the disastrous course of our foreign and domestic policies. John McCain, on the other hand, will stay the course and give us third Bush term. The world doesn't need it, and neither do we.

  2. You can call me arrogant. If arrogance frees Europe twice in WWI and WWII, if arrogance produces inventions and discoveries that increase the quality of life around the world. If arrogance produces advances in medical research then call me arrogant. We have the right to be arrogant, along with being arrogant we are the most giving people in the world. How many countries came to our rescue after 9-11? Or Katrina? or ever? How many tons of food, how many of our people have gone to foreign soil to help? Yes, we have the right to be arrogant.

    I have to disagree about Obama. Not because of race, political party or any of that, but because of his past record. It's too liberal for me, plus what he has said now isn't what he said during the rest of his career. His tax proposal will send the economy down the tube. But thats a topic for another blog.

  3. As eloquent a synopsis as I have ever read (and I am a wide-ranging reader of current geopolitical events). Serious, thoughtful analysis is practically a lost art. Thanks, G. (Thanks, too, for recommending my blog to your friend.)

  4. Your 'friend' sounds very rude.