Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Independence Day

Today we celebrate not only the founding of our nation, but a turning point in the history of the world.

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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Most of us grew up with at least a passing familiarity with those words and the rest of the document that paragraph is part of. I think that's one of the reasons we don't appreciate just how revolutionary, in every sense of the word, the Declaration of Independence was. Hell, it still is.

For most of the people on this planet the idea of an inherent right to life and liberty is an alien concept. We're all familiar with the daily horrors spawned by the repressive governments of the world, but even in countries that we think of as liberal democracies there are severe restrictions on the rights of the individual. The Canadian conception of a right to free speech, for instance, is profoundly different from our own- you can still be fined and tossed in jail for publishing a fully accurate and fact-based story if it's about a topic the Canadian government has deemed off-limits.

That commitment to the rights of the individual is something we should value not only for our personal interests, but because it quite literally has been the salvation of the Utica area. In the past twenty years tens of thousands of political refugees from around the globe have moved to Utica to escape the tyrants that ruled their homelands. Without that influx of population, and the resultant second and third generation families, there's a very good chance the Utica area would have undergone an even more traumatic economic collapse than it already has. Things are bad now, there's no doubt about that, but without those extra thousands of people they would have been a lot worse.

Those immigrants bring more than just economic life to the area, however. They have personal stories that make their embrace of our nation all the more precious.

I'm sure some of you have seen an elderly Vietnamese gentleman with horribly deformed hands walking on Genesee street. Please, if you have the time, talk with him. You'll find out that his hands are the way they are because the communist government of Vietnam took a dim view of his service with the ARVN during the war. They had him place his hands on an anvil and then started pounding his fingers with a ball-peen hammer until he was fully "re-educated".

Or talk to some of the Somali immigrants that now call Utica home. Ask them what it was like to try and stay one step ahead of the warlords and their roving gangs as they desperately searched for food. One of the most emotional experiences of my life happened the first time I took a recently arrived Somali ironworker to the grocery store. We were rounding the corner between produce and the meat section when he just started sobbing uncontrollably.

Why? Because there was just so much food. Fruits from around the world, fresh vegetables, loaf after loaf of bread, hundreds of pounds of meat and cheese...and anyone could buy all they wanted. It's humbling to see a proud man reduced to tears by the abundance we casually take for granted.

The thousands of Bosnians now living in Utica have their own horror stories. Some of them witnessed first-hand the organized extermination of entire regions while others were subjected to daily artillery and sniper attacks that left their homes destroyed and decimated their families.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Despite all our flaws, and we as a people have many, we still have a lot to be proud of. We're an exceptional nation, born of exceptional circumstances, and, I hope, destined for an exceptional future. Take some time today to think about what we're really celebrating.