The Fourth of July is a nostalgic time for me. I remember with pleasure and wonder blankets under the sky at Jackson, Mitchell, Wilson, and Juneau Parks. I recall parades and curbs and decorated bikes. While there were traditions like soupy Jell-o and potato salad that needed monitoring for temperature, there were also steady changes from being by my parents’ side to increasing independence for myself. At first, I ventured away to the extended family gathered in a broad sprawl across a picnic grove in celebration. Much later I moved away completely, hosting parties of my own with Paul until he could no longer tolerate the exertion.
The Fourth meant family, friends, and food. It meant relaxation and outdoors. As a child it meant the beginning of high summer. I don’t know if they were singing then, but the Fourth reminds me of cicadas. Small or large, flags were prominent. There was likely a heavy dose of patriotism, maybe some anti-British stuff, too. But, coming from four European families that immigrated to the Americas in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the Fourth of July was certainly about freedom and liberty.
Long before I took a course in civics, I was taught this as a Cub Scout:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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.
Even though I was in fifth grade when I took civics from Sister Mary Owen, I cried when I heard about the three branches of government, the system of checks and balances, and the distribution of power. There was something so remarkable about the wisdom of people long dead in designing a form of government that rested on the human power of the people to self-govern, yet recognized the potential to disenfranchise those in the minority — a potential that could be thwarted by an appointed group of justices who would determine the constitutionality of the actions of congress and the executive. At the other end of my tears was an enormous pool of hope. We would not always get things right immediately, but we could eventually.
It is against this backdrop that I face the heartbreaking comments of a few Republican presidential candidates who have called Supreme Court justices “five unelected attorneys.” First, there are nine and their debates on issues are rigorous. That one justice recently shamed himself in his critique of his colleagues does not negate the fact that they are a body of nine. This same justice has run amok on other situations and holds harsh positions on labor and the rights of workers. Second, they are unelected by design to assure that the rights of minority are not swept aside by prevailing perspectives just because they are popular. The emphasis on not being elected distracts many of us from the realities of the dubiously legal power being wielded by the Koch brothers and others who were not elected. Third, these “attorneys” generally have extensive experience in the law and thus were selected by the executive for approval by congress.
The hopes of my childhood, learned in my family and in school, celebrated annually on the Fourth of July, feel threatened right now. These hopes are for the protection of civil rights, justice for all, and the freedom to pursue our happiness — not just to survive but to thrive. Today I am thankful for Sister Mary Owen and the way she inspired us to be civil. Were she alive today, I would refer some presidential hopefuls to her.