Carey Restino: Americans can rededicate ourselves to civics on Independence Day

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

July 4th has come to be a day to celebrate summer with hot dogs, hamburgers and parades. In short, it has become a day when Americans essentially get to do whatever they want, which is, really, the point.

Independence Day honors the day the Declaration of Independence was signed some 238 years ago. Founders wrote at the time that the day should be celebrated with festivities much like the ones found throughout the country this week.

But what are we really celebrating? Today's world is substantially different from the one experienced as the Declaration of Independence signers dipped their quills in the ink and made it law. Yet the principles of this document ring true and pertinent today, and continue to provide a high bar.

The famous words of the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," hold wisdom that all of us can aspire to, whether lawmakers or citizens.

What we often forget as a nation is that some of these principles that have contributed to the unusual evolution of this country were derived from the struggle we faced separating from powers that failed to fairly represent us. The very idea of the United States of America was based on this principle of protecting the equality of all men, women and children. It seems like a simple enough concept, except that to create a truly equal society, those who have had more power in the past have to relinquish it to those who have been oppressed. That isn't always easy, and sometimes as difficult as wrenching candy from the fist of a 2-year-old. It requires those with power to freely give it up, those with money to hand some over, those with food to share. It requires us to think beyond ourselves for the greater good of the whole. Many would say we still have quite a bit of work to do in that regard.

While we work on that, there is another element of the Declaration of Independence that needs noting. The declaration states that the path to securing those rights of independence is through the awareness that those governing "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." In essence, that means that the citizenry bestows the powers to govern on those who make our nation's decisions. We are the decision-makers, and if we disagree with what is happening in our nation, it is our responsibility to speak up.

In today's world, many bemoan the fact that governments are too responsive to corporate America. That may be true, but it is also true that Americans by and large have opted not to participate in the public process. In many elections, fewer than 20 percent of voters bother to fill out a few ovals, and who knows how many of those voters who do vote take the time to be educated on the issues.

Go to your city council meeting and tell me how many citizens are there. In fact, local governments have become so unaccustomed to citizens paying attention that calls from media asking for public information are viewed as an intrusion. I'm pretty sure that is not what the Declaration of Independence signers were thinking when they fought their way free from the oppression of a government that was disconnected with the people it governed.

If we as a nation, a state, a city are unhappy with the direction our region is taking, a well-framed structure exists to fix that. Skeptics should consider many of the acts of inequality that have been righted through the history of the United States. The thing missing from the current process is participation.

So along with our celebration this week, consider how we as citizens are holding up our end of the bargain. Election season is upon us -- how many of us are paying attention to the candidates? Who will take the time to be an educated voter? You are not only making a personal decision, but a decision for the country as a whole, in honor of the sacrifice made by those who secured these rights for us. Independence Day offers an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to participating in this nation's political process. Because independence, if unused and unpracticed, very quickly becomes dependence, and equality, if unprotected, will erode.

Carey Restino is the editor of the Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

Carey Restino