What Do We Celebrate this July Fourth?

07/06/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

When the United States championed democracy, freedom, and opportunity, it made sense to celebrate the Fourth of July.  But are we still promoting those values? If we are paragons of neither opportunity nor freedom, what exactly do we celebrate today?

Our Statue of Liberty bears an inscription welcoming the world's "tired and poor...huddled masses yearning to breathe free."  Our open arms which once greeted strangers (on whose backs our country was built), however, have been replaced by laws like Arizona's SB 1070, copycat laws around the country, and the recent Supreme Court decision upholding provisions that encourage racial profiling. 

Liberty itself is a fading memory, a lyric in an anthem that few Americans today understand, even as millions sing it at sporting events and during today's holiday.

Robert Samuelson's Is the U.S. a land of liberty or equality? reviews a duality within America's political culture.  Samuelson writes that "Americans' self-identity springs from the beliefs on which this country was founded," including values of equality and liberty that often stand in tension.  He correctly notes that "in today's politically poisoned climate, righteousness is at a premium and historical reality at a discount," which in turns helps "explain why love of country has become a double-edged sword, dividing us when it might unite."

While Samuelson's observation of political dysfunction is compelling, his analysis is flawed. It examines a conflict between two values, neither of which is visible in today's United States.

Samuelson first addresses equality, reflected in our repudiation of aristocracy.  Whereas "[i]n most societies, people are marked by where they were born....[Americans are united in] belief that no one is automatically better than anyone else simply by virtue of birth."

As an immigrant, brought to the U.S. to pursue freedom and economic opportunity unavailable in the land of my parents' birth, I deeply appreciate this history.  But we must recognize it as historical, rather than contemporary.

Birth doesn't matter in America? Tell that to Steve Forbes, or the late Ted Kennedy, or other politicians who coast to office on the heels of familial wealth or reputation. Writing alongside Samuelson in The Washington Post, Harold Meyerson notes that:

As to economic equality and the political equality with which it is inextricably intertwined, the picture is bleak. The mega-banks that plunged us into deep recession have had the political power to forestall their breakup. A handful of billionaires continues to donate unprecedented sums to election campaigns. The share of national income and wealth [secured by] the vast majority of Americans continues to decline.

Opportunity is not the only value that we've resigned in recent years. America's reputation as the "land of the free" has also faded, withering under a bipartisan consensus since 9/11 that federal authority to protect national security must trump individual rights, as well as checks & balances on executive power.

The American vision of liberty that brought democracy and human rights to the world has dimmed, clouded by executive secrecy (demonstrated by Samuelson's and Meyerson's colleague Dana Priest and researcher William Arkin), torture with impunity, assassination without trial, pervasive dragnet surveillance, and unapologetic racial & ethnic profiling pervading the wars on drugs, terror, and immigration.

We may remain a land of many things, but freedom is not among them.

Mass incarceration has decimated minority communities, creating a humanitarian crisis apparent in the overwhelming proportion of the world's prisoners held on our shores.

Congress authorized the National Security Agency in 2008 to secretly capture and datamine all your e-mails and phone calls, and now prepares to extend that power again this year. A law signed by President Obama on New Year's Eve gives the military authority to kidnap and detain any American without trial. Congress had already given the Pentagon power to withhold evidence of its human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, the line between military and police is blurring, as SWAT teams, aerial drones, armored personnel carriers, and fusion centers transform local police departments from public safety agencies into a militarized occupation force deployed across the country.

Never in human history has a state enjoyed such unfettered access to the minds of its subjects (ahem, citizens). And rarely in our nation's history have agencies, and the officials who command them, wielded such dramatic power.

Information omniscience, combined with the authority to monitor, detain, torture or kill at whim -- each of which has been the object of bipartisan consensus across the Bush & Obama administrations -- will be a terrifying combination when those powers inevitably fall into the hands of less conscientious leaders.

Between the liberty and equality values that have long contended for our nation's legacy, we have managed to lose both.  Having forgotten the ideals that once defined our nation, what do we celebrate this Fourth of July?

This is no time to merely sing the national anthem, or mouth empty slogans about freedom. This is a time to take action to restore the promise of liberty our Founders attempted, by writing our Constitution, to bequeath to us.

Our flag is still there.  But where is the nation it once inspired?

This article was first published by the People's Blog for the Constitution and is licensed here with permission.