The Fourth of July traditionally is a day on which we think of ourselves as a more united people, bound together by the freedom declared and won by our ancestors, a freedom that we would like to believe is enjoyed now by all Americans. We join in community celebrations, gather for parades and punctuate it all with the boom and dazzle of fireworks at the day's end.
This year, though, the spirit of the nation seems more fractured than usual. We still are grappling with the chilling psychological effects of the bombing in Oklahoma City and with it the emergence in everyday life of organized groups that are alienated from their government. The constant barrage on hate radio continues. Groups who feel isolated by race or poverty may be shunted even farther into the shadows by the time this Congress is finished. Some of our elected representatives spend their time singling out for harassment people they deem too different from "real Americans."
So what is a real American?
In 1943 journalist Ernest L. Meyer imagined in an essay in Common Ground that a superpatriot got his wish from a genie that all the aliens be exiled from America. Not only did the patriot want them gone, he insisted they take all their creations with them because "they have fashioned nothing but dissent and plots and labor racketeering and radical heresies and sins and sabotage."
Funny thing was, though, when all the aliens vanished, so did much of existing America. Gone were "whole cities of skyscrapers and subways and railroads and mills and marts wrought by the sinews of many aliens from the four quarters of the world when the call went out that America needed immigrants to make America great." What followed, the patriot discovered, was "a great and strange silence."
That essay may be more than 50 years old, but its moral is relevant today. The differences among us that seem to provoke the anger and vitriol in our civic dialogue are exactly what make the United States the rich, vibrant country that it is. And that common strength built from diversity is what we should be celebrating today.