‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” sang Simon & Garfunkel in 1968 on “Bookends,” the literary album covering youthful innocence and old age.
Here we are, more than half-a-century later, and many of us are on that same or similar highways and byways this long weekend, celebrating our nation’s birthday the way we know best, on the road again. A decade hence, it may look different, with fewer fossil-fueled vehicles in an Uberland of autopods controlled by computers and cameras. Still, as long as we travel in real space to grandma’s rather than FaceTiming virtually with her, there’s hope for us yet.
As our offspring inherit this paradise, paved with parking lots in Joni Mitchell’s parlance, one can only believe that its core, a democratic republic that has stood for several centuries as a shining city on a hill for a troubled planet, will survive. In the wake of last week’s ten-pin presidential debates — a Miami miasma of five anchors in search of a boat, a mashup of Survivor and Gilligan’s Isle — the Statue of Liberty still stands astride New York Harbor.
We will have to find a new way to confront the unreconciled shadows of our history that cloud America’s messaging to the world. We need media that are not echolalic, governance that is not self-serving but serving from the self, communities whose gunpowder is saved for July 4th fireworks.
Travel the globe, and one can’t help but love this country, with all its flaws. When I returned from China in the early ‘80s, where freedom of speech didn’t exist — and, amidst Hong Kong protests and the “Great Firewall” of a censored Web, still doesn’t — I came down the airplane stairs, knelt, and kissed the tarmac. America. Freedom of the press is our lodestar. But freedom flees from an empty house. If reporters become an endangered species, the house falls.
We study the Founding Fathers, which is all well and good — and let’s write back into our texts the mothers — but at the time of the American Revolution, an unheralded pillar was the press. The Boston Tea Party entered history in the pages of the Boston Gazette, where Samuel Adams found his voice. The Pennsylvania Journal brought us the debates of the Continental Congress. And the Massachusetts Spy reported on the Battle of Lexington.
Abroad, it isn’t just a free press that helps define our democracy. Excepting comic book fantasies, portraits of American life painted by Hollywood lose to indigenous storytelling internationally. And if America’s leaders do not champion on the world stage the value of our news media, skeptics overseas may find China’s model trumps our freedom — they are only as important as we say they are. Memes on the internet and statist foreign media will color our numbers.
Ultimately, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) remains the core of the American experiment. We descend from distant shores, yet if we listen to Fox News, we might batten the hatches and lock all the doors. Nor is MSNBC better, with its opposing mythos. Funhouse mirrors that amuse, not news.
At its heart, our democracy still relies on vibrant journalism — national and, more importantly, local. Without the Fourth Estate to hold government accountable, our towns and cities, minority groups and blind majorities, will be lost in digital social media both immoderate and unmoderated. We need investigative reporters and entities unafraid to shine the curative effects of sunlight on the inevitable tendencies of individuals and institutions to transgress.
Yet since 2005 more than 1-in-5 local papers have stopped the presses, and there are half as many local journalists working as there were a decade ago. Useful as they may be, “user- generated” news items uploaded by YouTubers and Instagrammarians cannot make up for a lack of experienced newsgathering.
Save me a brew and a hot dog too this weekend. But while you’re still in the glow of July 4th, spare a thought for what keeps us free, and buy yourself and everyone you can afford a subscription to their local newspaper.
Paper or digital, I don’t care, just put down a deposit on Independence Days to come. Freedom has cost.