“We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin (on occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Independence)
The hot dogs, burgers, and potato salads, and ice cream have been consumed. So have the tall cool ones. The echoes of the last fireworks no longer reverberate; the smoke-filled air has drifted away. Independence Day has come and gone.
It is July 5th.
The new sun rises, revealing households and backyards that could stand a bit of cleanup. The litter from the celebration, the empty bottles and the paper plates cry out for collection and dumping in the bin. Here and there ashes from the barbecue and the fireworks ask to be swept away.
It’s Hang-Together Day.
The first Hang-Together Day also occurred in Philadelphia in 1776. Benjamin Franklin may have given us the memorable quote, but he was merely voicing a general awareness at the time. It was one thing to assert independence – it would be quite another to win and hold it. The last line of the Declaration carried the same somber realization:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
The colonials knew that to succeed in their purpose, they would need each other as never before. They’d have to collaborate. Partner up. Be responsible. Be reliable. Be accountable. Success would require effort and sacrifice.
Viewed from today’s lens, our feelings for the majesty of the event are tempered by recognition of its shortcomings: All (white property-owning) men are created equal? What about women? People of color? The poor-and-property-less? Centuries in, we’re still struggling to confront and correct these inequities. Progress, if any, is intermittent. The wrongs persist. The disenfranchised see this with clarity; pale stale males, especially the wealthier ones, are complacent and complicit.
Yet to make lasting progress, to foster inclusion, build equity and justice, the challenge remains the same. We have to hang together. Collaborate. Partner up. Be reliable. Be accountable.
And IEJ is only the starting point. A raft of additional challenges call for us to hang together in July of 2021: holding the pandemic at bay, coping with climate change, educating the next generation, maintaining the integrity of democracy and the vote, reducing poverty, building national resilience both to natural hazards, modernizing our critical infrastructure (and maintaining our crumbling building stock); feel free to add your own top concerns. As individuals, we can do little more than make a dent here and there across the list. Real progress requires a shared, unified vision, and large numbers pulling together in the hard, sustained grunt work on the ground.
All this might seem daunting, especially given the highly polarized, fractious society of today, but July 4th reminds us annually that we did it once. It also reminds us that unity need not be total, just considerable. Looking back, in 1815, former president John Adams estimated about one-third had favored the Revolutionary War at the time; another third were opposed, and the remaining third were undecided. (Since then, scholars have estimated between 40-45% of (again, white) colonials favored the war, 15-20% were opposed, with the rest undecided.). The population then was some 2.5 million; no more than 10% of this number were involved in combat throughout the five or so years of the fight; no more than 1% were actively engaged at any moment.
Whatever the numbers, and however much the notion of independence should be celebrated (and it should be!), a framing of July 5th as Hang-together Day (or Interdependence Day) might help sharpen thinking with respect to the present challenges.
How to proceed? Here’s a short list of ways we can learn to be incrementally more intentional about interdependence.
1. Simply hang together.
Two centuries of change have enriched and broadened the meaning of hang. Hanging with means to relax in the company of friends. Who do we hang with? A broad range of folks or a narrow spectrum of just-like-us? July 4th -5th could provide us an annual opportunity for self-examination: how might we expand our “hang-with” crowd… build relationship and trust with a more inclusive group? What call, or text, or simple greeting would be a good first step?
2. Add collaboration to our personal and professional collaborations.
Pick a work or personal activity in which you’re invested. Or identify one of the world or national challenges that matters most to you. Reflect on the inherently interdependent-nature of making progress, a contribution. Identify a personal step where collaboration with someone new in a new way would foster success. Take a first step to begin your follow-through.
3. Build a real awareness of all those around you.
Look at others attentively, with discernment. As each person enters your day, think for a moment: I’m dependent upon this person. Take a second moment to reflect: this person is counting on me in equal measure. Start with the easy ones: a life partner; co-workers. Then expand the circle. Someone you routinely or subconsciously view as having authority over you, or under your authority: your parents. Your children. The boss, not just a co-worker. One of your self-reports (if you have some). The faculty advisor; the dean. The freshman in your lab course. The intern. Then go further, to include strangers: the person next to you on the Metro or the street intersection. The clerk behind the counter. Or the customer at your counter. The crowd at the outdoor concert. The people you’re with for the one and only time in your respective transient lives. I’m dependent on this person. This person is counting on me in equal measure. Allow whatever time is needed to get in touch with the fully reciprocal nature of all relationships. None is one-sided. Don’t worry if the thought process seems too time consuming and stilted at first. It’ll rapidly start to go more quickly, become natural, reflexive even as it becomes more productive.
4. Be prepared to give up something to gain more.
The colonials pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. But they weren’t at all interested in sacrifice for its own sake. Quite the contrary. The colonials were all about gain. They wanted something more, something greater: the fullest measure of life, liberty, and happiness. And they recognized from the outset that it wasn’t coming free. That and similar challenges appear anew for every generation. We all get to think through what matters most to us and why, in some cases recommitting to aspirations we’ve held for as long as we can remember; in other cases pressing the reset button.
To this point, hanging-together has been viewed as equitable, but merely transactional. Hanging-together is seen as desirable primarily as a means to an end.
But there’s a deeper piece.
5. a firm reliance on Divine Providence?
It may well be that Jefferson and the other authors in congress in Philadelphia didn’t even think consciously about this language at the Declaration’s close. Maybe it was boilerplate, a mere rhetorical flourish. It may well grate on some present-day ears or offend sensibilities. But the Judeo-Christian faith those gathered largely shared went a step beyond what’s been discussed here so far.
According to that tradition, human life has inestimable value because we are all created in the image of God. To be aware of our mutual interdependence with each person we meet – what we stand to gain from them and what they stand to gain from us in equal measure – seems somehow less consequential than to realize that each person we meet expands our understanding of the full nature of God (or Divine Providence, or Higher Power). Hanging-together becomes of value not solely as a means to societal ends, but also as a beneficial societal end in and of itself. Love and forgiveness and commitment and hope are invited to enter the frame.
Enjoy your day!
Is it coincidence that the cities that have most embraced IEJ seem to be dying? Or is it that what they claim IEJ to be is actually nothing like what they are creating? And, perhaps, it is more like what they seem hell-bent on destroying.
In my professional life, I have had some amazing collaborations. My collaborators over time have informed and enriched my work. But to the best of my belief, our mutual selection of each other was based on merit: a mutual recognition that together we could do more and better than we could alone.
Again in my professional life I actively sought diversity of thought. Truth is a multi-hued mosaic. For each of us, there are colors we cannot see. Working together, we were able to see more of the color – grasp more of the truth – than we could separately.
And yet in the name of Inclusion, we see some of our nation’s best schools turning away from merit as the sole basis for acceptance. The social science and humanities departments in too many of our universities – while espousing Inclusion and Diversity – are actively shouting down any viewpoints that make them uncomfortable. I see decisions being denounced because the deciders weren’t of a rainbow hue, or didn’t include those with certain sexual or gender orientations, or simply cared more about getting it right rather than getting the “right people.”
Yesterday, we saw the NYT take snide potshots at what I believe the most fundamentally important statement of what we should be – because its authors weren’t. Our Founding Fathers were of their time, but each of them took steps – sometimes halting – toward the ideal they had so eloquently articulated. We seem obsessed with looking at our history through the fraught lens of racism, but too much of our history disappears when we do that. I find it more useful to look at racism, poverty and a myriad of other ills through the lens of the Declaration.
In a sense, true equity is unattainable – we will always have richer and poorer. What we can attain is a society with abundant opportunities, and which has the tools to recognize and seize those opportunities within everyone’s reach. Sadly, we cannot make anyone grasp those tools; to me, that is the foundational act of joining our society.
I have never tried to be just. Does any one of us know enough to be just? Or even enough to know what Justice is? Justice is something I see as the social avatar of Godel’s Theorem in math: there are certain propositions that can be formulated but that cannot be proven within a mathematical system. We can ask what Justice is, but cannot answer the question. The best we can hope for is that we will respect each other’s humanity and human worth while living on This Real World, and leave Justice to a higher power in the next.