Standing atop the magnificent State House of the State of Rhode Island is a statue created by artist George T. Brewster, and placed in this highly-conspicuous place in 1899. Originally it was thought that a statue of the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, should dominate the State House cupulo. But further conversation led to the design of a character, named “Hope”, whose name soon became “the Independent Man” to depict the contrarian and self-reliant personality often associated with the people of Rhode Island.
I couldn’t help but think about that statue as I began to form my thoughts about this, Independence Day, July 4, 2014. There is a pride in Rhode Island about the sense of free-thinking. Yet it is bound up in a traditional community, often conflicting with the conservative, predominantly Democratic, Roman Catholic heritage that dominates the population. Several times when passing the State House I could swear that I saw the Independent Man shaking his head in confusion.
Americans, in general, applaud independence. It is, after all, the ideology that sparked the Revolutionary War, in which the United States of America was separated from the domination of Great Britain. Without a spirit of independence within their breasts, the people of America would not have withstood the powerful armies and navy of England. It was the spirit of Independence that was the inspiration for the drafting of some of the most radical documents in history which stand today, 300 years later, as the foundation of this country.
But at the same time, the spirit of contrariness which we define as independence has, at times, stepped over the boundaries of its definition to become a nastiness which rejects the thinking and the creativity of the leadership of the nation. Over the past six years we have experienced that very anti-establishment behavior in Congress, where blocs of legislators have stood against the apparent will of the nation in rejecting legislation which is designed to benefit the people. In the name of independence the poor and the disenfranchised among the population have been further and further separated from the wealthy and powerful. Women, at the mercy of a male-dominated government, have been increasingly marginalized and their rights dashed in the name of independence. Those who are foreign born who seek citizenship in this country are abused and rejected. Education is undermined at the expense of budgets. The very fabric of the nation, our highways and infrastructure are neglected and crumbling.
This Independence Day, 2014, finds this nation torn into shreds by factions and individuals who demand the right to interrupt established decorum and order in our government. Esteem for government leaders has been measured at less that 10% of those questioned in polls. Fewer and fewer qualified and respected leadership personalities have chosen to stay in elected positions, discouraged by the infighting and nastiness characterizing government in our nation. Inexperienced and emotionally immature people have stepped in to seek office, bringing with them the desire to sandbag progress and to promote policies which, to many, appear to be counter to the principles upon which this nation is founded.
At all levels of government there is dysfunction and discouragement. The populace is less and less enthusiastic about the bodies to which are entrusted the governance of our communities, our states, and our nation. It is a difficult time to feel good about independence. The word and its true meaning has been badly abused.
If it were possible, it would be appropriate to climb to the top of the State House in Rhode Island and place a black armband around the upper arm of the Independent Man. The end of democratic government as we know it and desire it has not come in this state or in this nation. But it is a difficult time in which to sing the patriotic songs which have characterized the spirit of American democracy. The music does not carry the day.
Photo Credit: Rhode Island State House