"Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man."
The hot dog is quintessentially American. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says we will consume 150 million wieners on Independence Day. When Americans celebrate freedom, we crave encased meat to test our diets, and our presidents.
Candidates for the highest office in the land are wont to be pictured eating a wiener. The candid shots are fodder for comedians, but we like to know our leaders aren’t above mugging with our favorite food. And because the hot dog is synonymous with a day that boasts our exceptionalism, the photo-op might also say something about that candidate's patriotism.
Last month, our president was reminded of what it means to be a hot dog-eating American.
President Barack Obama was in Warsaw to commemorate 25 years since Poland’s first semi-free elections, which brought about the end of communism in the country. Lech Wałęsa, the man who led that 1989 electoral sweep, said that he had an “interesting” chat with Obama.
“I said that I wished the United States would lead,” Wałęsa told Polish television.
It wasn't the first time Wałęsa has chided the current administration for taking a back seat in foreign affairs. “I hoped that we would regain in America a moral leader,” the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner told FOX News in December 2013, “because that’s what the world needs. The world as it is without leadership is dangerous.”
This Fourth of July, Americans should take Wałęsa’s words to heart. The world depends on us. Those who live without freedom love the idea of this summer day, its firecrackers, and its hot dogs. The Wałęsas of the world remind us that even though some recent attacks on our liberties at home may get us down, we cannot and should not slouch.
The man who Wałęsa credits for winning the Cold War loved July 4th and was never without a story. 25 years ago, in Ronald Reagan’s last address as president, The Great Communicator recounted one that inspired Americans then, and now.
It was back in the early eighties, at the height of the boat people. And the sailor was hard at work on the carrier Midway, which was patrolling the South China Sea. The sailor, like most American servicemen, was young, smart, and fiercely observant. The crew spied on the horizon a leaky little boat. And crammed inside were refugees from Indochina hoping to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them to the ship and safety. As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up, and called out to him. He yelled, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”
Reagan said that he was “proudest” of “the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism.” But that pride did not come without a warning, one that is worth reproducing in full:
This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.
An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.
But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.
So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what's important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.”
Well, let's help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ‘em know and nail ‘em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.
Let that be one reason to celebrate this Fourth of July with a little more gusto. After all, we’re Americans.
Nicholas G. Hahn IIIis the editor of RealClearReligion.org.