It’s hard to know how to celebrate the 4th of July when you’re an American abroad. Do you gather other Americans and swap potato salad recipes? Invite friends from your local community and other countries, then explain as well as you can what, how, and why we celebrate the 4th of July?
This year I’m choosing a quieter route. I’ve been living in Switzerland for 10 years this summer and work primarily in the Middle East. In the United States, I was a Professor of Media Law and Ethics, Public Opinion, and Media and Culture. Almost every course began with an introduction to Freedom of Expression and the First Amendment, and the ideals upon which the United States was founded. Chris Lebens, a former student, once wrote, “I am a former Marine… but you made me BELIEVE in Justice.”
I believe in justice. In equality, In freedom from tyranny. In independence. These beliefs have been the driving force in both my professional career and personal life.
Since leaving the United States I’ve worked in or visited almost 40 countries on 5 continents. One afternoon last year in Qatar, as a group of engineers was straggling back into a meeting room after lunch, I asked a gentleman to my right where he was from:
“Sudan,” he chuckled, “your people are killing us!”
“Oh, gosh. I’m sorry about that.” I said and turned quickly to the next fellow.
“Where are you from?”
Later the Sudanese fellow confided that he’s saved enough money to retire near his son’s family in Virginia. His greatest pride is that all four of his kids have earned degrees from fine American and Canadian universities.
As I think about my own connection to my country and to this holiday, nothing reflects what people around the world have told me better than this brief clip from a speech Bono gave at Georgetown University in 2012:
“That’s how we see you around the world, as one of the greatest ideas in human history. Right up there with the Renaissance, crop rotation, and The Beatles’ White Album.
The idea – the American idea – is that you and me are created equal. …That life is not to be endured but enjoyed. …That if we have dignity, if we have justice, then leave it to us, we’ll do the rest.
This country was the first to claw its way out of darkness and put that on paper. …These aren’t just American ideas anymore – you brought them into the world. …These truths, your truths, they’re self-evident in us.” -Bono
That’s what we celebrate on the 4th of July — and what we need today — the commitment and conversations it took to imagine a country as it could be, and the bold, brave action required to stand for it. The United States was founded on the premise that the world could, and should, be better, fairer, more inclusive. At our very best, we’re a beacon for those ideals. Today I celebrate them.
Around the world I’ve met remarkable men and women fighting for those ideals, too, like Esra’a Al Shafei, clever and tireless Bahraini entrepreneur and human rights advocate, and Maggie Doyne, an American who’s transforming Surkhet, Nepal with love, nurturing, nutritious food, education, and teamwork. I celebrate them and their brave work, too.
Today more than anything I celebrate the progressive decisions and actions of the Supreme Court over the last few weeks and all that is still possible to ensure Americans’ unalienable rights. To this American abroad, it seems our government is acting in accordance with its values. It makes me proud.
As almost every American abroad will tell you, I think quite a lot about going home. There is so much beauty and spirit to admire in the United States. So much to love. My reasons for contemplating a return may be different from most peoples’, though. I think about going home because I could be useful, make a difference, contribute. In the U.S. children are starving from hunger and for affection. I could feed, teach and care for kids. Schools are failing and I’d have a lot to offer. The culture is coming apart at the seams; maybe I could help stitch it back together in small ways and patches. Crime, overwhelming poverty, crumbling infrastructure, growing inequality, and glamorization of ignorance are difficult to witness given all the United States of America stands for and is capable of. I think about going home because in addition to all its wonders, home is in a shambles.
So the 4th of July is a bittersweet holiday for this American abroad. I’m pulled between the idea and potential of the United States and this global perspective I’ve lived over the last decade. I’m not sure going home to fix what’s broken is my life’s work. Perhaps spreading these ideals far and wide is.
I’m reminded of Bill Moyers’ essay at 4th of July last year, “Celebrate the Revolution — and Keep It Going.” His language is direct, his marching orders clear: “Get off the couch. …Don’t leave it to others. … Take direct action: it’s your right.”
Parade, picket and protest wherever figures of power and authority gather to plan new devices of enrichment for the few at the expense of the many.
On this 4th of July I celebrate you all, Americans abroad and at home and others who share the vision of what could be: standing for dignity, for justice, for equality, for freedom, and most of all for each other. I will do that wherever I am.