Sometimes just saying something does make it so. Sorta. For example: The Declaration of Independence. I have another declaration to suggest we use, as individuals. It throws the user into an immersive encounter with principles of being an American.
Rus VanWestervelt is an educator and writer in Baltimore (and distinctly, proudly of Baltimore). You can meet him at thebaltimorewriter.org.
He is also a compassionate, contemplative philosopher (in my view), things he would not say on his resume or business card. He has good taste in meditative music, too (so sez me). He put six minutes of Deuter on his Samadhi Sanctuary page.
Yesterday, the Fourth of July, I had the pleasure of reading his beautiful article, A Declaration, where he reflects on patriotism in a personal way from childhood to adulthood, learning along the way that the nation does not always live up to its principles. In his continued commitment to those principles, he reminds readers of the Emma Lazarus words at the Statue of Liberty …
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she / With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
… and he takes it much farther by doing something I don’t recall ever seeing done in school or in any public celebration or at home: he presents the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, and asks us to “Please read every word. Every single word.” (copy below)
Then he writes, “On this day of independence, on this day that we celebrate everything that America stands for, I offer a Declaration that is a little less of the grandiose and a little more of the introspective contemplation of what it means to be ‘American.'”
With his permission, I share it here, and embrace it.
- I declare that, as an American, I respect the rights of my neighbors, regardless of political affiliation.
- I declare that, as an American, I open my arms to the homeless, the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses.
- I declare that, as an American, I embrace the independence and individuality of my neighbors as long as that independence and individuality does not bring harm or injustice to others.
- I declare that, as an American, I shout my encouraging words, my art, my music, my ideas, my beliefs of what is right for all to the world regardless of the risk of suppression or judgment.
- I declare that, as an American, I work hard to support my community, to be honorable in my efforts, and to offer good will toward others who contribute to the wellness of our country.
- I declare that, as an American, I embrace inclusion, not exclusion, and my words and efforts shall carry opportunities instead of consequences.
It reminds me of the Five Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. (How’s that for dropping names, huh?) Not in its specific content, and not in the style of writing, but in its manner of calling for clarity of intent and commitment, in its way of calling to the soul as a recitation of scripture does, in its devotion to great and high principles, and in its contemplative character.
I propose that everyone make a life-long commitment to read the Declaration of Independence and some portion of the U.S. Constitution (at least the Bill of Rights), and to recite The New Colossus and the VanWestervelt Declaration on every Independence Day, and the latter two recitals also on every national holiday. (I’m scratching my head now, wondering why this was not routine in school?) You might add the Gettysburg Address as another perfect thing to recite on all national holidays.
You may not believe it from what you’re reading here, now, but I am NOT a big flag-waving marching singing drum-beating patriotic display fan. (I prefer to stay home or go hiking far from the crowds.) There’s nothing wrong with big displays of patriotism and affection for the nation, if sincere, but patriotism doesn’t have to include any of it.
Patriotism is commitment to the understanding and practice of agreed principles. Our schools — no, WE generally fail to teach the principles well enough to prevent the rise of what we now have at the top of government. We can change that with a national, truly non-partisan educational campaign for all ages, including simply reading these documents to each other in public and at home.
There are July 4 traditions that are welcome and seemingly indestructible: barbecues and fireworks, most notably. There are some that are fortunately defunct: hours-long orations by stuffed-shirt politicians. There are some innovations that one hopes do not become traditions: 60-ton tanks rolling through Washington, D.C., most notably. And there is one that has faded with time, yet is worth preserving: reading the entire Declaration of Independence, from the ringing opening through the bill of particulars to the pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” — from the article by Eliot A. Cohen in The Atlantic, July 4, 2019: Go Read the Declaration of Independence; The universality of its ideals is precisely what makes the United States exceptional.
I agree that we should read every word of the document we hail as the cornerstone of our claim to national independence, the basis on which the fireworks and music and marching and singing and drum-beating stand, because the principles extend beyond any rocket’s red glare …
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence
… And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor. — Final words of the Declaration of Independence.
It is a sacred pledge to each other, not just to a flag; and pledging not merely allegiance.
A National Holiday Reading Link & Download List (in chronological order):
Declaration of Independence website (or PDF)
Constitution of the United States of America website (or PDF)
— Bill of Rights website (or PDF)
— Amendments 11-27 website (or PDF)
Gettysburg Address website (or PDF)
The New Colossus website (or PDF)
Letter from a Birmingham Jail -doc image PDF (or PDF text)
I Have a Dream website (or PDF or audio mp3)
VanWestervelt Declaration website (or PDF)
Any you want to add?
And then there’s that crucial element of American life: humor. We still have the Constitutional right of satire, the exercise of which may save us yet, because people follow it more than they read books or great documents. The current Administration has given the laugh experts more material than any other in my lifetime, maybe even since Jefferson. For instance:
Ponder these thoughts of Mark Twain’s …
…no country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more. — The Gilded Age
Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.
(This points to the bone-headedness of accusing someone of “treason” because they challenge the government or its apes.)
In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue, but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.
— Chapter 78, p. 401, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1959, Charles Neider, Harper & Row
After writing this post, I actually have some faith that a few people will benefit from reading it! That’s nice. But don’t worry, I blog for my entertainment. I had fun. Did you?