This 4th of July as flags unfurl, patriotic music plays and fireworks burst across the darkened skies of our country, which America will you celebrate?

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What once proudly was hailed, becoming dark and unseemly.

The choice is not a binary one, but it does compel you to take a moment and reconsider what the 4th means to you. Will you celebrate an idealized America, maybe even the one you feel you grew up in? One where the arc of history was long, but always seemed to bend toward justice? Or will you celebrate with a wink, nod, and silent endorsement of the version that has slowly taken root across our nation’s fields of grain?

This new America, where those legally seeking asylum are separated from their children, caged and denied rights afforded to prisoners of war, but not offered to a father and his daughter attempting to cross a river in pursuit of the American dream. The new America where compassion, truth and democracy are vilified, while corruption, misogyny and racism are heralded as the ideals that will make this country great again.

For decades America has been self-promoted as the “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” And for many, our country followed through on this promise. But whether exposed or simply lulled into complacency, our nation is becoming something no longer recognizable to many. A change lurking beneath for generations, but let loose by an election that promised the “forgotten American” a chance to feel superior, if not great again.

Not through self-reflection, boot strap work ethic or a connection to the principles of democracy. But rather through elevating the “forgotten” through hollow words and games of distraction at the expense of the legacy and potential of a nation ripe with opportunity. Those seeking to reclaim their greatness bound together by a common theme, by the cruelty they dismiss but that history records every second of every day. Themes that are hauntingly familiar, but are not heard above the self-congratulatory victories over the imprisoned, beaten, and disenfranchised.

All the while the beacon on the hill still calls those seeking freedom. Still they arrive trusting that the century-long legacy of welcoming the tired, poor, and those yearning for freedom, cannot be undone by the dark wishes of a handful of those leading the chorus to deny the principles upon which America was built.

Which America?

Human rights disregard, through Trump’s perilous lies,
“Good people on both sides,” founders tears are now streaming.

Which America will you celebrate on the 4th of July? The one built on the mythology of George Washington. The founding father, the one who was heralded as incapable of telling a lie.

Whether fact or fiction, it held aloft an ideal that honesty and integrity were needed for all Americans, but most of all anyone honored to serve as the President of the United States. A standard that while impossible to meet, served as a litmus test to hold leaders and each other accountable. Honesty as the backbone of bonds made between fellow Americans, as well as alliances forged with other nations. Trust earned after the ravages of war destroyed countries and devastated the hopes of millions. Trust that was proven with opportunities, friendships, and the often proven principle that America would defend democracy and freedom and embody them for all the world to see.

Or is the America you will celebrate the one where the self-proclaimed gold standard of honesty and integrity has become corroded and rusted like 100 year old statues in a park?

An America where lies must be told to uphold a false narrative of excellence and supremacy. Lies must be told because the truth is our country is greater than one man. Lies must be told, because the truth is that America is a nation of immigrants and the march toward justice continues, albeit deterred, but still it marches on.

Lies must be told to mollify the masses who seek a sense of belonging and treasure based on a single monochromatic characteristic. One amplified in ways that fails time and time again. In ways that failed in 1940’s Germany and that will fail once more. Lies told and lies now forever documented by historians, websites, photographs, Facebook posts, and in the memories of all those who we work with, live with and coexist with, day in and day out in America. Lies that mask the Faustian bargain that many have made, while denying that one day payment will come due.

Which America?

And the racists dead stare, the silent are everywhere,
Adds fuel to their fire, as children die in our care.

Which America will you celebrate as the parade rolls down Main Street this 4th of July? High school bands march in unison, trumpeting Sousa, batons twirling as children scamper for candy thrown by local politicians. Red, white and blue bunting on balconies, tied on to cars and strung across our nation’s capital.

The colors representing hardiness and valor (red), purity and innocence (white) and vigilance, perseverance and justice (blue). A simple, yet beautiful palette that for many conjure feelings of security and comfort, but increasingly are viewed in stark contrast to the rapid, yet silent deterioration of valor, vigilance, and justice. A methodical and unrelenting dismantling fueled and synchronized with tweets, cult-like sycophancy, and nationwide messaging to numb Americans against the pain felt by the six year old child sleeping on a cold concrete floor. Soiled clothes, no mother to comfort her cries, a balled up shirt for a pillow, and chain link fence as her bedroom wall.

Colors that long represented the potential of the best in all of us, now betrayed by those who were elected to represent all Americans and the Constitution they were sworn to protect. Leaders who feign ignorance, or chuckle at the torrent of rape accusations, dishonesty, corruption, and white supremacy ideology that percolates in the hearts and minds of many walking the halls of our nation’s capital. An ideology that is not limited to chants in Charlottesville, but has now put pen to paper in legislation, in speeches, through punditry and propaganda meant to dehumanize “the other.”

All the while not realizing that the ones being dehumanized are those who have voluntarily surrendered their humanity.

Or maybe the America that you will embrace and fight for is the one where a majority of those in our country honor their humanity and manifest it by welcoming compassion for those they know and for “the other.” Finding and embracing solace in the realization that there is no distinction between the two. The America that continues to come to terms with its brutal history of slavery, internment camps, genocide of Native Americans, and denial of women’s rights, so it can ensure that such atrocities never happen again.

Is the America you will celebrate this 4th, the one where such a disparate group of individuals, religions, and ideologies need not be divided, but rather must be united in a shared recognition of what this country truly means? Continuing the awkward, at times painful, but ultimately rewarding dance that is our democracy.

Which America?

Oh, say will you stand up, or will you just cave,
It’s our land, and we’re free, and it’s ours we must save.

Which America will you celebrate this 4th of July? As the sun sets and the first fireworks go off the rocket’s red glare will provide a brief respite from the reality of what America is becoming.

Whether on the 4th, or the 5th, or all the days that follow, the chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” will continue. Not as a result of explosions in the sky, but as intentional distractions from the suffering and inhumanity that is done in our country’s name. The “oohs” and “aahs” for the promise of better days, jobs that have yet to materialize, or a reclamation of greatness that harkens back to the darker days of this country. Or the odd distraction and the cold comfort of knowing, that at least for now, you are not the target of this nation’s wrath.

For generations, Lady Liberty’s torch has lit the path to freedom for many across the globe. Her flame inspired millions overseas, and serves as a reminder to those on our shores that America is an ideal that holds promise and opportunity for those seeking not just a better life, but a chance to contribute to its stunning mosaic of talent, cultures, and creativity. But without candor, honest reflection and action, that flame will soon be doused. Absent a sycophantic press or administration, America to many is becoming a nation viewed with pity for what it once was, and fear and sadness in viewing its now mangled manner.

America as a nation where children die in our care, women see their rights denied and disregarded, and leaders cavort with despots and dictators. This time modeling what a new America could one day stand for.

Maybe this 4th of July, consider celebrating an America that is transparent and acknowledges in raw and unflinching terms what it has become. An America that does not romanticize its past, but also one that is able to embrace the arduous, painful, and never-ending march toward justice. Celebrate the America where we can learn from our faults, moving each and every day toward a more perfect union. One where we celebrate our unparalleled successes, own up to our failures, and acknowledge that it is this slow trudge forward that made us a model for so many to follow.

As of this 4th of July America remains the home of the free, a home where people still have a chance to be brave. Two fundamental elements of any democracy. Given the unstoppable power that freedom and bravery has to build and, yes, rebuild as efforts are put forth to dismantle those rights each and every day. Being dismantled as we look at the fireworks above, and pick up the candy thrown by politicians.

America is ours to save and this Independence Day, please consider what it means to you and what you wish to leave for your children. It will take more than “oohs” and “aahs,” and should instead inspire you to act when the crowds have dispersed. It will take courage to do what has always been the right thing to do. Stand up for the rights of others, speak out when injustice occurs in our country’s name, and never surrender your humanity for a fleeting sense of superiority that was never there to begin with.

Which America will you celebrate this 4th of July? And which America will you work to save on the 5th, and all the days that follow?

Lee Matz

Complete version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with spelling and punctuation from Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream,
‘Tis the star-spangled banner – O long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto – “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.