This Independence Day we, as always, contemplate the many freedoms Americans have long cherished. We can, with a few restrictions, speak, write, worship and assemble without government interference. One would think an annual celebration of such freedoms would be a simple exercise, complicated only by local fireworks ordinances and a reliable supply of ice and charcoal briquets.
But the concept of freedom, it turns out, can be relative. We've seen the contradictory nature of freedom in a democratic and changing society play out dramatically over the past few weeks in particular. And it leaves us weighing concepts and definitions: What is freedom, really, in cases where one liberty is sacrificed to make another liberty possible?
Consider the recent revelations about the wide-ranging and pervasive domestic surveillance being carried out by the National Security Agency. Many are alarmed and angry, and appropriately so. One of our most revered freedoms is that of privacy -- the comfort of knowing we are secure in the solitude of our homes, persons and conversations. But if the government is conducting this domestic surveillance in order to protect us from harm and thereby guard those freedoms, is it a fair price to pay? One freedom, we might say, has been sacrificed to preserve another.
Consider the Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that defined marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. The decision allows same-sex couples in states that recognize such unions the freedom to enjoy marriage benefits that had been denied them -- a decision we support. But states that do not recognize same-sex unions are exercising a broad freedom under the 10th Amendment to define the institution of marriage as they see fit. Here, an individual freedom gives way to a collective freedom in several U.S. states.
And while the court's rejection of the Voting Rights Act might have scuttled a vital protection -- the freedom to vote without the threat of marginalization -- the decision, although wrong in our view, grants a long-withheld freedom to the states that had been handcuffed by the law: the freedom to decide how to run their elections without federal intervention.
Freedom, it turns out, is muddled with nuance and compromised by contradiction.
But for all of the debate these contradictions inspire, we can be reassured by the fact that we can debate at all, that we can say the Supreme Court is wrong, that Congress is foolish, that the President is a Marxist.
We often ascribe more prescience to the founders than they likely deserve, but we can unreservedly declare that the nation's founding documents hold up well. Signing the Declaration of Independence, a treasonous act in 1776, showed more courage than will ever be required of most of us. And constructing a Constitution that, to a very great extent, would still be useful and relevant after 100 years, much less 237, was a feat of lawyerly vision.
But, as our society's dueling freedoms illustrate, no American ideal is concrete and infallible. Democracy will always be a work in progress. That hardly seems like a slogan worth etching in red, white and blue, but it is as true as any patriotic maxim we'll hear today. And it is probably just as important.