Published months ahead of schedule, an exploratory essay on America and the Fourth of July. Continuing my self-appointed role as Job’s comforter, I gently probe the nation’s tender psyche with my ice-pick-like wit. Trotsky-esque.

Every Fourth of July I wonder just how many people have lit firecrackers and blown their fingers off in the name of freedom. Individual pyrotechnics are such a poor way to celebrate the freedoms we’re supposed to cherish as Americans, especially when you risk some form of dismemberment. But that’s what you get when Independence Day means little more than a movie with really cool special effects. To these post-Vietnam generations, the 4th is just another meaningless special effect, and as a society we are left bereft of a national spirit that used to be as commonplace as a buggywhip.

Oh sure, some might argue that a semblance of U.S. pride resurrected itself for the rah-rah surrounding the ill-conceived Gulf War, but frankly, all we got out of that was 100,000 dead Iraqis, a bunch of veterans with a mysterious “syndrome,” and the usual Pentagon lies. That’s not the national spirit I’m talking about. That’s using the military to insure gasoline stays near a dollar a gallon. That’s making the world safe for capitalism. That’s jingoism run rampant. You’ll forgive me for thinking George Bush got some of what he deserved, but not nearly enough of it, in the following presidential election.

What I’m talking about, ultimately, is a feeling of community so strong that it says we may have differences, but we both hold Truths X, Y and Z to be essential to human freedom, and we’re going to set aside our differences and stand side-by-side and die side-by-side if necessary to insure that these freedoms are protected. Then we can go on disagreeing. If we’re still alive.

I’m explicitly not saying that this is the way U.S. citizens have always acted. And, as you might have guessed, I don’t think we need jump on the military bandwagon to be doing what I’d consider our patriotic duty. Quite to the contrary. But the key to patriotism is not asking “what is best for me?” but rather “what is best for the country?” I’m convinced that a military solution is rarely what’s best for anyone, victor or vanquished. (The notable exception here is the defense contractors.)

But there have been times in this country’s history when a military solution was the necessary response. Certainly we couldn’t have just kept dumping tea into the Boston Harbor and expected the British monarchy to capitulate. Although it would’ve been marvelous if they had.

I also think it’s fair to say that peaceful solutions (goodbye Czechoslovakia!) were tried with Hitler. Some madmen—most madmen presumably—can’t be appeased. (I mean, look at me.) Peace through strength is a valid principle. It just (1) hasn’t been consistently and firmly articulated to potential aggressors and (2) doesn’t mean we need to spend $265 billion a year to have an adequately powerful military.

The United States was a social experiment, and one that I’d say has succeeded fairly well. It could be a little more of a democracy than a republic, and its capitalism should be a little more strictly regulated, but, hey, it’s been a good 220-some years. We have a standard of living that’s higher than most of us really have any right to expect. Our Founding Fathers, despite owning slaves and wearing funky wigs, did a pretty good job.

But part of this success has allowed our government to do some very nasty, very sneaky things. The CIA, the FBI, the ATF, the “black budget,” are all symptomatic of a larger problem: lack of governmental accountability to the people. The Freemen of Montana, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, the siege at Waco, et cetera are all a manifestation of what happens when the government starts to hide its actions from its people and become accountable only to itself: the people stop trusting the government. And it’s difficult to believe in a government that props up and overthrows foreign governments, violates its own Bill of Rights in a “drug war” against its own people and refuses to kick out its own ethically-challenged politicians. Yes, Newt, this means you.

Maybe we don’t hear as much about the freedoms and ideals I’m talking about—thinking about the country first and holding government accountable—because the economy continues to roar right along. As I write this, the Dow just zoomed past 7000, and there’s no question that the citizenry complains a lot less when they’ve got more money coming in. But the truth is that the notion of citizenship, with its corresponding rights and responsibilities, has been lost on all but those who have adopted the United States as their own and thus have a true appreciation for the freedoms we so casually enjoy. We might hold these rights a little more dear if we’d been born in say, Zaire, the former Soviet Union or Gingrich’s district in Georgia.

This is an era of individualism, and I’ve got nothing against individual rights. But America’s strength has always been its ability to meld people of disparate backgrounds into a common group—the now disowned “melting pot” idea. Because we’ve allowed the government to become critically unresponsive to the people, we’ve lost that in the last 30 to 40 years, and retrieving the notion of community rights is all that will ultimately keep us from becoming a society that is bankrupt not only financially but morally as well.

Thousands of have given their lives to preserve this freedoms and rights we take for granted. Only by pushing for openness in government, holding those in power responsible and believing in community can we do justice to those who gave their lives and make the 4th more than just a fire hazard.