Today in the United States it is the fourth of July (though by the time I get around to posting this, it may actually be the 5th). This day commemorates the founding of our nation and its war for independence from Britain. For the longest time, while I enjoyed the fireworks and the trappings of celebration, I never thought much more about it. I know the history of our country good, bad, and in-between and I continue to read, learn, and study as time permits. It’s always been a topic of mild interest for me, particularly colonial history. This year, however, I’ve been thinking quite a bit more about the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and especially the Constitution, about what it means, the conditions under which it was written, and most of all about what a remarkable document it truly is.
This is an odd place for me to find myself. I’ve never, ever considered myself a patriot. I’ve never been proud of being American nor indeed does it form a significant part of my personal identity (as I know from talking to many of my friends that it often does for others). In fact, growing up in Maryland, I was often ashamed and irritated by the general Weltanschauung of this country. I hated what I perceived as a lack of culture and class, the stupidity and mediocrity that I saw everywhere around me (as it seemed to me as a child. As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate the nuances of this country more, particularly the way that Americans are open-hearted and friendly from the outset as a general rule. No longer being one of only two people in my grade school class who liked to read books lol, and with the autonomy of an adult in choosing her own friends and pursuits, I realize everything is not as bad as it seemed when I was small). I always longed to be elsewhere. This longing only increased when I began studying ballet with an eye toward making a career for myself. Nothing that I found in the States, especially the broad, brash ballet style so favored by Balanchine favorably compared with the elegant traditions of France, Denmark, or Russia (1). This feeling didn’t abate as I grew. Later on, having an adopted mother who was Swiss helped my political awareness to develop well outside of the American norm – I’m neither Democrat nor Republican and were I living in the 18th century, I’d probably have supported England– so it’s odd for me now to find myself more and more over the past few years in the position of not only having to explain the Constitution and in some cases basic American history to people, but also realizing what a truly remarkable project it was and remains.
Enacted in 1789, the Constitution contains a preamble (“We the people…”), seven Articles (describing the three branches of government -legislative, executive, and judicial,- the responsibilities of the state and federal governments, and delineating how the government works at a national level), and 27 Amendments, the first ten of which form the Bill of Rights, which restrict the power of the government and grant us such rights as free speech, freedom of religion, and the right to bear arms (2). It is not perfect, but it is, nonetheless, an astonishing document. In drafting the Constitution, our founding Fathers for all of their flaws, did something ground-breaking and unique, something extraordinary, and we as a nation are at our best when we are working together to live up to the ideals articulated in its laws. I don’t think the writers of the Constitution thought their country was perfect. In fact, the very language of the preamble shows quite the opposite: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” not a perfect union, but one that would be better, a more perfect union. This document was a starting point, not an end. It was the beginning of our country, not its terminus. It was a foundation upon which we might build, working toward that “more perfect” union.
Instead, today, we as a society are doing our damndest to burn that promise down, to destroy that union. Benjamin Franklin, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, once warned that, “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” As we sacrifice more of our freedom for a false sense of security, beg for more regulation on our personal lives and bodies, for restrictions on the very freedoms that our forefathers fought so hard to defend, I cannot help but think that we are slipping the yoke around our own necks. If I could go back in time to 1776, I would beg the founding Fathers to end slavery even if it cost them the support of the southern states. I would point to the divisions that are being used – not by those desiring equality for all, but by groups like antifa that would exploit that desire for their own deeply destructive ends—to destroy the country that our founders were trying against all odds to secure. I would beg them to acknowledge those men and women of color among them as equals and to fight hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, side by side to build this nation proudly, equally. Because to do anything else would be to create a putrid division that would continue to fester beneath the surface of their nation, impeding the very liberties that the Constitution urges us to ensure.
We had an opportunity to begin this country clean in 1776 and we failed to do that. I believe, however, that slowly we have been working toward a ‘more perfect union’ ever since, even though we have more often than not fallen short. It is up to all of us to keep our eyes raised high to the expectations laid out in our Constitution, a document unlike any other in the world at the time it was composed, to keep our eyes upon that and to fix our minds and characters on attaining all that it promises. I do not believe the way toward that goal lies in deconstruction, in burning, looting, rioting, and tearing down and rejecting order. I think it lies in remembering that we can and should be better than we are, and in working toward that as individuals, as communities, and human beings with a shared stake in our nation. Those things that spread division, that offer no solution but dissolution, that spit on the very freedoms our ancestors of every color and every race fought to defend do nothing to further its promise. They are the things that will destroy us from within.
I’m still not a patriot. More often than not in my heart of hearts I want to ask, “what is “American” to me that I should care about any of this?” Yet I do because I have had ancestors who survived communist Russia, who were taken from Lithuania and sent to gulags for their patriotism (3). My family story has taught me how important a thing it is to fight for freedom and to cherish its promise and at its best, that is what America stands for in the minds of so many of our immigrant ancestors and so many immigrants today (4). That same story has taught me the need to acknowledge failure while at the same time working to build up our communities, to demand change, without also begging for destruction. The marches, riots, protests currently taking place across the USA sadden me to my core and they make me angry. The peaceful protests are fine but too often they’ve been coopted by groups that have zero interest in fighting racism, but instead wish to see the end of America…with no clear, workable vision of anything better with which to replace it. It is destruction for the sake of destruction and isn’t doing a god damned thing to make the lives of POC better.
I think we should treasure our history – the good, the bad, the ugly – because it is our litmus test, our line in the sand, our point of departure. It isn’t there to make us comfortable or uncomfortable. At times, it is right and proper that we be deeply ashamed. At times, proud. Acknowledging all those messy parts, framed against the remarkable hope embedded in our founding documents, and moving forward as a people is the challenge that we have always faced. I rarely write about overtly political things here (I save all that crap for facebook). I do think, however, that participating in the civic life of one’s community is something that a well-rounded adult does as a matter of course. It’s not devotional work, but it is an obligation that we maintain as part of remaining in right relationship with the vaettir of our nation, our state, our city, our town, our immediate community (5).
We have an incredibly robust government that is capable of allowing necessary change to occur even in the face of huge opposition. Its checks and balances are our strength and somehow this keeps our government from sliding into either dictatorship or chaos. It’s a remarkably dynamic and lively system. People have the freedom to question even the constitution itself, but before we decide to rid ourselves entirely of that document, we might want to consider living up to it.
- Each of the national ballet schools in Russia, England, France, or Denmark has a unique style. The American style, in many ways defined and codified by George Balanchine and his NYCB and School of American Ballet has a style that is broad, open, and lacking in the tightly controlled elegance of the more traditional systems. It’s like dealing with multiple dialects of the same language. Each has its beauty and its flaws.
- That freedom, even when articulated in a Constitution, is never a given is perfectly demonstrated by the slow chipping away of our 2nd amendment rights in this country, a process that has been going on for decades but that has gained greater traction in the wake of Columbine and other school shootings. The degree to which contemporary Americans are willing to sacrifice freedom for the illusion of security is truly terrifying.
- When I was 15, I had the opportunity to do a nearly semester long exchange program in what was then the Soviet Union, and by chance, we were sent to Vilnius, Lithuania. Almost all of my dad’s family came from Vilnius (a few from Kaunas) and I actually met cousins while I was there. One of the most moving experiences was meeting my father’s uncle and having him grab my arms and say to me, “You tell your father I’m still here. I was sent to Siberia, but I survived and I’m still here.” I didn’t understand what he meant then or why it was so important a message, but I do now. I also understand why my Lithuanian ancestors were so deeply * angry * that I changed my last name from ‘Dabravalskas’ when I was 18 to one of the Russian names in my family line. I was a ballet dancer. At the time, every director I had made an issue of how long my Lithuanian last name was. Now, I’d tell them to kiss off but at 17 and 18 in the late eighties, trying for a ballet career, I wasn’t that bold! It was only when I married that my Lithuanian ancestors let go of the majority of their anger over that name change.
- My friend Tatyana was telling me earlier today that her parents, who immigrated here from the Ukraine when she was a pre-teen become extremely patriotic around thanksgiving and July 4 and it amused her. It made perfect sense to me though: they chose this country, coming from a repressive communist state where freedom of movement, education, job, and thought were curtailed. They know the opposite of what America represents. My dad, having been born – first generation American – in 1917 was the same way.
- ‘Vaettir’ is the old Norse word for (generic) ‘spirits.’ In this case, I’m referring to land spirits.
For further reading:
Full text of the Constitution may be found here.
Frederick Douglass’ “What to a Slave is the 4th of July” may be found here.