A heritage of grievances for a nation of complainers
The best thing about Independence Day, says columnist Danny Westneat, is that it started with a declaration that epitomizes the most American ritual of all: the listing of grievances.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Happy birthday, everyone. Now let the carping begin!
The carping? Yes, today we honor our country's founding, and usually this focuses on the sunnier sides of independence. Like liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or gorging ourselves on barbecue and then exploding stuff.
But what I love most about this holiday is that it started with the most American ritual of them all: the listing of grievances.
Check it out in the national birth notice itself, the Declaration of Independence.
Few people read this thing anymore, reports The Associated Press. Reading the declaration aloud used to be a tradition — first as a way to spread the news around the original colonies, via readings in town squares, then later to celebrate.
But this practice fell out of favor, only to be revived, briefly, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It was "part of the anti-commercial, anti-materialism movement to talk about values rather than stuff," a professor was quoted as telling The AP.
Now, apparently it's on the wane again. I couldn't find listings for any public readings of the 1,322-word document around Puget Sound, at any of the Fourth of July festivals.
So I highly recommend doing this on your own.
I was forced to read it, aloud, a few years back at a Fourth of July gathering. I'm sure I rolled my eyes at first. But I ended up surprised and pleased — not least because the real power of it, a bill of particulars, was totally unfamiliar to me.
It's an amazing catalog of gripes and discontents. Forget carpe diem. Our founding was more like carp diem — the day of complaint.
By my count, 825 of the 1,322 words are negative. There are 27 separate grievances listed, plus any number of protestations of the "you're not listening to us" variety. The grievances range from the specific ("imposing taxes on us without our consent") to the sweeping exaggeration ("he has plundered our seas and ravaged our coasts.")
The group I read it with seemed taken by the wide range of complaints. There's a grievance for everyone.
There are tea-party favorites about "swarms of Officers to harass our people." But also demands for more laws and government, describing these as "most wholesome and necessary for the public good."
The general take-away: You can't get any more American than a righteous bitch session. Or as the declaration put it: submitting facts to a candid world.
After you read it you can't help but come up with a modern grievance list. It's patriotic! Mine points mostly to our weak or compromised leadership today, not to tyranny. If there is one "king" in American life we need independence from now, it is the huge corporate-government alliance — how we allow businesses and the superwealthy to buy whatever laws and government are best for them.
A little reminder of this arrives this week when state initiative campaigns turn in petition signatures. News flash: The measures that will make the ballot are the ones that had a million bucks for paid signature-gathers. The ones that didn't, won't.
This has become an ironclad rule of our local politics: With a million bucks, you can buy any cause onto the ballot. Well, you can't, because you don't have a million. But Bill Gates can. How is this not just another form of aristocracy?
But that's me. You, most likely being an American, doubtless have your own grievances. List them. Air them, even. I say today's not actually a day for honoring unity. Because this holiday, our birthday, owes its very existence to the potency of complaint.
Of course the founders didn't stop there. They also created. That's key. In the end, theirs was the bitch session for the ages because it led somewhere.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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