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CHECKS AND BALANCES
July 3, 2011
 
When should we put the flag out? Q is uncharacteristically conservative on this issue, believing that it should fly on the Fourth and only then. I am more modern: why not string it out for a few days? I seem to be on the right side of history in this regard: already last night, I heard fireworks somewhere in the distance, and it was only the first day of the Independence Day weekend. Grandson Wyatt, who loves nothing more than to look at photographs of blimps on my iPhone and talk about them, saw a real-life one on holiday duty in the sky over Brooklyn yesterday while swimming, which must have just made his day. His beautiful younger cousin Kayla sets out today on a transcontinental flight east for the holiday, with two parents and a grandma dancing attendance on her two-year-old attention span. The church reverts to its summer schedule on Sunday, making the day so light as almost not to seem like Sunday at all -- even coffee hour morphs this weekend into Lemonade on the Lawn, an easy custom that doesn't involve brewing anything, or anybody's amputating a finger slicing bagels in half.

Noisily, Congress has decided to remain in session this weekend, rather than taking off for the Fourth. I believe we are to take this as a token of its seriousness about the debt ceiling debate, though I would have found it a more convincing one if they'd come to some resolution about that in the ample time they've already had to work on it. I have struggled for over an hour to find two snarky things of equal heft to say about this, one aimed at each of the two major political parties, but I now must leave off the effort: my gibe at the Republicans was far superior to the one I came up with for the Dems, and it wasn't fair.

Oh, all right -- one party wants people to vote according to the interests of the social class to which they wish they belonged, and the other one thinks every employment benefit anyone has ever enjoyed is in the Bill of Rights. You choose. At the end of the day, each one needs to convince its base that it didn't compromise -- as if politics were about anything but compromise. I guess enough legislators will have to be willing to act like grownups and find a way not to get caught doing it in order for the leaky ship of state to continue its slow crawl forward.

We wring our hands over the lack of civility in modern politics, but a glance through history reveals that it's always been rough trade. We imagine that we are the first generation to demonize our political opponents, but then we remember that on July 12, 1804, Alexander Hamilton lost a duel with Aaron Burr, a sitting Vice President of the United States. Hamilton's second in the duel and his physician ferried him back across the river and he died at his home on Jane Street in New York, just a block over from my old apartment.

They were still sorting out what it would mean to live in a republic. Two hundred years later, so are we. Competition and argument belong to such a government by its very nature, and every age will produce overgrown children in whose hands these two engines of statecraft destroy instead of build. The drug of power is an hallucinogen; it can cause some of us to injure the very thing we think we're protecting. None of us can be trusted with as much power as some of us want. The primary genius of our system may just be its most frustrating component: the brakes.


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National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" features a reading of the complete Declaration of Independence on the morning of July Fourth, this Monday. It's an unexpectedly moving radio moment. To listen to it online, or to find your local NPR outlet, visit www.npr.org.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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