When I grew up in a suburb south of Boston in the Sixties, the Fourth of July was distinctly the greatest day of summer. Preparations would begin well in advance. First, a trip to Chinatown where we’d pay ten times the fair price for a brick of firecrackers and as many cherry bombs or M-80s as we could afford. The night before, one of our gang’s parents would drive us down to the shore to watch the magnificent fireworks displays, while AM car radios would play patriotic tunes like the Star Spangled Banner. I can still smell the gunpowder that would waft in clouds around us. The next night, we’d conjure up our own smaller version in our backyards, occasionally evading the police when our displays raised the neighbors’ ire.
The times were contentious – the Vietnam War had engendered a national divide – but at the peak of our youth the future seemed limitless. We were about to land a man on the moon! The red glare of the Saturn V rocket as it heaved its gargantuan frame into space symbolized to us kids all that was great about America. Freedom was such a powerful force that it could break the bonds of gravity. As a nation, we would not be restrained.
That all seems like dim myth now. Savaged by the financial collapse and the cost of endless wars on the other side of our planet, there is no budget for fireworks here in Southern California, though some towns have lifted the ban on private sales of firecrackers to grab a little extra tax revenue. Our dreams of pressing the boundaries of space have likewise been downsized. Next Friday, the space shuttle will make its last journey, and “after that, there is little glory to look forward to,” the New York Times notes this morning. The universe has receded from our grasp.
Something has gone profoundly awry in America. Our Supreme Court has defined freedom to mean the ability of big corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in behalf of their private political agendas, while the rest of us wield our personal freedom in obscurity and servitude. Awash in money from the powerful and wealthy, our elected officials have abandoned the majority of us. We are left to contend with rising health insurance premiums, disappearing jobs, $4.00 a gallon gasoline, a collapse of social services, and the deeply disturbing prospect that we are leaving our kids with fewer options and worse prospects than we enjoyed.
And fear has set in. Around a third or more of all Americans now fear for the basics: their ability to start a family, buy a home, put their kids through college, and retire. Through the tyranny of greed, we have lost our liberty to make a better future for ourselves. We have been robbed not merely of our savings, but of our personal and national sense of possibility.
We can recover these – we must. But we cannot do so alone. We can no longer hope to be led. We must, ourselves, lead.