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Americans Reflect on Meaning of Citizenship, Patriotism as Independence Day Approaches


July 4 is the 229th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and all across the United States, the day is being marked with fireworks, parades, family gatherings and, inevitably, some personal reflection on just what it means to be an American. With that in mind, we asked some people in New York to share their thoughts on country and citizenship.

"You can come and go as you please. You don't have to answer to anybody," said one woman sitting on a bench in Central Park with her mother. "You have a right to choose what you want to do, how you want to act, how you want to represent yourself as an individual." Then, remembering September 11th terror attacks, she added "And even if somebody tries to knock you down, we're strong!"

Nearby, Kristi Iris expressed a similar opinion between bites of her picnic lunch. "Being American means having the inalienable rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of freedom," she said. "I find it a gift every day to be born an American. I feel a certain amount of responsibility to help make the world a better place because of that."

On New York's Fifth Avenue, Manhattan editor Christopher Phillips said the word "freedom" conveys the essence of what it means to be an American, but he added that that "freedom" has many faces. "It means freedom to succeed. And it also means freedom to fail," Mr. Phillips said. "America has a lot of opportunities, but it doesn't have a big safety net if you don't make it. So you have to sink or swim. So on the good side, you are free to swim as far as you want. And there is no limit! But, on the down side, there is no one to stop if you if you fall. You are absolutely free to sink."

Tonya Lovelace, a tourist from Los Angeles, also thinks freedoms in America are a mixed blessing -- but a blessing nevertheless.

"On the negatives, there is a lot of materialism. People forget about the simplicities of life here because things are so harried all the time," she said. "But on the other hand, [there is] tolerance. People will just tolerate one another, and we give each other allowances to be different and not see those differences as negatives."

Mike Roberts of Monroe, Louisiana, in America's Deep South, said that until September 11th, he viewed other Americans mainly in racial and ethnic terms. But his thinking has now changed. "There is no such thing as 'one true American,'" Mr. Roberts told us. "Even the Indians came here from someplace else. We realize that now. We are a conglomerate of misfits that get along!"

That's not exactly how Linda, a 4th grade teacher from Hackensack, New Jersey, chose to describe Americans. Still, she loves the ideal of harmony and diversity.

"As a teacher I get to look at a lot of different kids from a lot of different backgrounds and different cultures and to see them all meld together." She glanced at a gaggle of kids - from Korea, the Dominican Republic, African Americans, and India -- "and they all get along beautifully. They don't see color, they don't see skin change. They see shared experience, and they see classmates."

When asked whether she thought that was uniquely possible here in this country, she was quick to say: "I really do! That's what the forefathers were looking for anyway."

Some people I spoke with were concerned that the freedom of dissent envisioned by the Founding Fathers might not be as secure as it once was. According to Taylor Spencer, who opposes the U.S. war in Iraq, some Americans equate patriotism with support for the government's policy.

"Based on today's definition of patriotic and the way that you have to put a yellow ribbon everywhere [to show support for the troops in Iraq] and put your American flag up everywhere, then I'm not patriotic," he said. "But I am deeply patriotic and I love this country and love what it stands for: individual liberty and freedom of expression and openness and generosity and welcome." Mr. Spencer said that when people in many other parts of the world see an American flag, they often have a very different sense of what it means to be American. "They see dominance and hegemony and power and greed."

For some, like Harry Pierce, a saxophonist and clarinetist playing for the crowds in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, such controversies seem far from everyday life. "I'm a musician," he said "and I really don't like to get too political. But… people have told me I'm a patriot because I'm playing American music -- George Gershwin, Jerome Kern -- all of the great composers. I think I'll play one right now!

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