A hopeful 4th of July

It might be the start of a new 4th of July tradition.

In a comfy cabin on a ranch south of Dillon, Montana, my family and I were with my youngest brother and his family. Supper was on the table, and nine of us were crowded around to enjoy grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob. A three-course dessert awaited—brownies, ice cream, and a red, white, and blue fruit salad. It felt like a patriotic, summer version of Thanksgiving. Which prompted one of the 20-something generation to lay down a challenge to all.

“Each of us should say something we’d like to change about our country, and something we’re grateful for about our country.”

Groans erupted around the table. Her snarky sister attempted to derail the ritual. “Can we say something we’d like to blow up?”

Ignoring the protests, the first sister began. “I’d like to change the way we deal with homelessness,” she asserted. She lives in Washington, D.C., and sees homeless people every day.  Others murmured their agreement. “And I’m grateful for the freedom we have in our country.”

“And what do you want to blow up?” Snarky sister persisted.

Enough momentum had been generated, however, that the spirit of cooperation prevailed. Around the table, we each took our turn responding to all three prompts. The  “changes” proposed were wide-ranging, such as greater support for public education, ending religious discrimination, reducing child poverty, eliminating the two-party system, and overhauling our health care system to actually focus on increasing health. We shared our gratitude for our nation’s attributes, like the beauty and diversity of the land, the freedom to travel that land, the privilege we have of being able to vote and to hold public office, the opportunity to make something of our lives, and the diversity of our country’s people. What would we blow up? Cell phones were nominated (not by a member of the younger generation), as were meth labs, the corn lobby, and—on the condition that “blow up” could mean “quietly make disappear”–all the nuclear bombs buried in the Montana countryside in missiles aimed at Cold War enemies. The spirit of cooperation yielded a strong spirit of consensus.

The conventional narrative about our nation’s people is that we are polarized on every issue, consensus is impossible and compromise is out of style. Our 4th of July experience refutes that. We are family, so around the table, we know each other well enough to know there are sharp divisions in our political inclinations. We all vote, we all are strong-minded, and we usually cancel one another’s ballots. Some of the opinions expressed stimulated questions, yet the resulting discussion was more than just civil. There was a lot more agreement than disagreement. And while it’s likely that some discretion was exercised, we weren’t actively avoiding controversial subjects. We were practicing political conversation in which we listened and learned from one another–and shared our outrageous ideas for the use of dynamite.

On the drive home, we listened to music from the Broadway hit Hamilton. Political contention was part of our history from the beginning, as was compromise.  (I’m glad we’ve outlawed duels.) As darkness fell, we watched fireworks exploding in the towns and neighborhoods we were passing by. Americans still love our country, even if they’d like to blow up parts of it.

This 4th of July, I am grateful for the free exchange of ideas, and for renewed hope that our nation can overcome political differences.

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