A LANGUID midsummer's afternoon. The air is heavy. We're sitting in the gazebo on the Fourth of July, sipping lemonade and debating liberty.
The flag over the patio hangs limps, toasted beneath by the whitening charcoal on the grill. It's hot. Shortstop, our free-spirited springer spaniel, knows a dog's day when he sniffs it and rests his head on his paws in the shade beneath the table.
"Give me that good ol' mountain dew," twangs Steve, reaching for a drink.
We've gotten to talking about things patriotic. My friends and family, who, as I do, usually view our American lifestyle with a tinge of cynicism, are not often challenged to count their political blessings. I ask Gene, an old buddy who's always been quick to criticize the bureaucracy, the welfare system, politicians -- I ask him, "What's right with America?" He answers without a second's hesitation: "Freedom."
Now we're on to something serious. But what about freedom elsewhere? England's free. Italy's free. Israel's free.
"It's not the same," says Gene, who's been around. I agree: The English and Italians and Israelis are free, but they're not as free as Americans in speech, religion, integration, opportunity.
A golden-winged butterfly flutters onto the gazebo rail. We stop talking for a moment, staring, thinking.
"It's amazing that this country works as well as it does," says Steve. "I mean, the welfare system is so unfair, the economy so geared toward endless growth, materialism so valued over other ideals -- it's amazing that we do so well." The others assent; Ethel mentions material comforts taken for granted, Barbara the bounty in the marketplace.
We're all watching the kids play in the yard, black and white kids, Jewish and Gentile, arguing only about fair and foul balls. I wonder how many other backyards are full of the same.
The American Dream is full of paradoxes. "Freedom" is still one of our most elusive words. Although it is central to the national psyche, for many Americans freedom is measured more in degrees of deprivation than as a means of overcoming adversity. But America is a country continuously struggling for its soul, and for all our enduring problems -- poverty, pollution, drugs, deficits, crime, corruption -- the fact remains that no other nation in the world has ever been faced with, and largely been able to meet, so great a challenge to achieve true multi-cultural equality.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of what's right with America though, is that no other people on earth are as addicted to self-scrutiny, self-criticism and self-realization. Political activists, peace demonstrators and consumer advocates can be as purely patriotic as flag-waving rednecks -- and all of them are wont to sing out the old saw, "It's still a free country!" Civil liberties may be written into the laws elsewhere, but no nation comes close to actually delivering on the freedoms of speech, religion, press, privacy, due process.
The Constitution, whose Bill of Rights was enacted 200 years ago this fall, is still remarkable for its simplicity and scope of vision. And the Supreme Court -- nine differing minds faced with cosmically difficult issues -- has managed to keep it a living document of, by and for the people. To the people that's not a platitude, but the guiding light behind the law of the land.
The butterfly flits away. One of the neighbor's kids slides into second base. We slurp, through melting ice cubes, the last of the lemonade.
I throw in my two cents' plain about the great diversity and dynamism of the American character and am quickly hooted down by my less-romantic guests. But by now I can't help myself. Steven starts to hum the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and the others join merrily in, while I go on about our unique ability to throw rascals out of office, about American generosity and inventiveness, about -- tossing my needlers a sop -- the beauty of our spacious skies and amber waves of grain.
Shortstop begins to bark, just as I get to why I love the flag but would defend the right to burn it. He's heard enough patriotism -- or humming.
The hamburgers on the barbecue are sizzling. For the moment, at least, liberty in the backyards of America is secure.
Kenneth Lasson writes from Baltimore.