Reflections on July 4

I don’t like fireworks. Nor do I watch football, or get drunk at barbecues, or fly the flag. So many, quite obviously, might accuse me of being “unamerican” or “unpatriotic.” But bear with me.

When astronaut Edgar Mitchell flew to the moon on Apollo 14 in 1971, he, like all the other astronauts, was a loyal, patriotic American, who was proud to pose with our flag on the barren, sun-baked lunar surface. But the experience of standing there and looking back at our shimmering blue planet fundamentally transformed him. As he later said,

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

At that moment, Mitchell became — and remained — a Gaian, whose first and fundamental loyalty was to the living Earth and to all her creatures. When he looked back at that miraculous blue orb floating in the sky, he saw no national boundaries — only landforms, oceans, and clouds, all interconnected. And he realized at that moment that what we call “nations” are just mental formations — imaginary constructs conjured in our collective consciousness by our inherent tribal instincts, common to chimpanzees, gorillas, and all other social animals. But Gaia — the living Earth — was real and visible. And it is all that ultimately matters — ever.

And so today, if people ask me the tribal question, “What are you?” my immediate answer is “I’m a Gaian — and so are you.” For “Gaian” is the only identity label I know that is entirely inclusive, and that draws no boundaries whatsoever between “us” and “them” — the boundaries that are conjured into being by our innate tribal loyalties — whether as nations, religions, political parties, pro sports fans, or whatever — but that can be transcended, as with Edgar Mitchell, by the awakening of a deeper insight into who we really are. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” And this “inescapable network of mutuality” is exactly what Edgar Mitchell looked up and saw from the moon. And it became his highest and first loyalty.

So what does all this have to do with the Fourth of July? Is this not just another tribal holiday to celebrate our “Americanness” — our “independence” from Britain, our colonial “mother country”?

Well — yes and no. It is all of that, but something more. Something sacred. And that sacredness inheres in the iconic paragraph that opens the document whose signing we actually celebrate on this day:

“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 power from the consent of the governed…”

Let us begin by laying aside some of the ideological baggage that has recently afflicted our reading of these lines. We know, for example, that in 18th Century usage, “all men” was a synonym for “all people” — though we also know that this was a solidly and unquestioningly patriarchal culture, for whom “men” were the only people who really mattered.

And let us also lay aside our knowledge that the man who drafted these immortal words, Thomas Jefferson, was a lifelong slaveholder who was raised in and fully participated in an intergenerational crime against humanity, a morally bankrupt socioeconomic institution that denied full humanity to people based on their skin color and African ancestry, in order to enslave them and their descendents for life, thereby inflicting incalculable social and psychological damage on them, even a century and a half after they were emancipated by force.

But to judge Jefferson’s words by his own life, actions, and cultural biases is a classic example of an Ad Hominem fallacy — confusing the writer himself with the words he has written. People are complex, and fully capable of self-contradiction between what they espouse and what they practice. And as Hamlet says, “use every man after his deserts [i.e. what he deserves] and who shall scape whipping?”

So let’s, again, forget about Jefferson himself for a moment, and even forget about the historical contexts of America’s growing schism with the British crown and parliament, and look at the deeper, sacred meaning of these words. One way of doing this is to juxtapose this passage with the other sacred utterance I quoted above:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Not to belabor this, but these two passages cohere completely. If we take Dr. King’s immortal words as the major premise, we arrive at the Declaration’s opening thesis statement as a logically necessary consequence. This can be put in the form of a theoretical enthymeme: IF we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, where whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly, THEN it follows necessarily that all men [i.e. all human beings, male or female, all inclusive] are created equal [in the sense that]they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights [i.e. rights that no one can take away without just cause and due process] that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Note, again, that — slaveholder though he was, Jefferson wrote “all men” — not “all white men” (though he very much could have, given the acculturated prejudice of his peers). Nor did he write “all Americans.” It is for this reason that the major premise of the Declaration is fully compatible with the Dharma — with the timeless truth reflected so clearly in Dr. King’s words: “an inescapable network of mutuality” — and with the insight of Edgar Mitchell as he beheld our living and vibrant planet from the dead and desolate moon.

And this is why I still celebrate the Fourth of July — not with noisy fireworks, but with quiet contemplation, renewing my vow to realize the vision reflected in these words: to work toward a world where because we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality where whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly, it follows necessarily that all of us have equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that our governments are legitimate only if they “secure these rights” by consent of the governed. Happy In(ter)dependence Day!

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.