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Fourth of July fireworksIndependence Day marks the birth of the United States of America, originating on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia when the Founding Fathers stopped arguing long enough to sign the Declaration of Independence.

As a nation, we’ve been arguing ever since.

About what “freedom” means – am I free to shoot my neighbor’s dog because it’s barking 24/7? Am I free to shackle my rebellious teenager to a radiator? Am I free to make my employees work without pay? (Note: the answer to each of those questions is “no,” but that doesn’t mean folks won’t fight for their right to do any/all of them.)

About what “rights” are (the original Founding Arguers discovered they needed to revisit the “rights” question in 1789, when James Madison introduced what became the Bill of Rights as a set of legislative articles; that argument continued until the Bill of Rights was signed into law in 1791), about who has rights (black people, even if they weren’t enslaved, had limited rights until the 20th century; women couldn’t vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920), and about what kind of rights immigrants have until they become US citizens (they are granted the same Constitutional rights as citizens, no matter what talk radio might lead you to believe; they can’t vote, they can’t work without a work permit, but they have the same right of habeus corpus, Miranda rights, etc.)

As our quadrennial Silly Season starts to ramp up in preparation for 2012 federal elections, let’s remember that with rights come responsibilities. Here is my suggested Bill of Responsibilities:

  1. All citizens have the right to their opinions. They have the responsibility to share them without resorting to verbal, or physical, violence. Yes, Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olberman, I’m talking to you.
  2. All citizens have the right to bear arms – but not against their fellow citizens, unless said fellow citizens are storming their front porch with malicious intent, i.e., they’re armed, too. Armed citizens have the responsibility to demonstrate restraint around gunpowder. Yes, Wayne LaPierre, I’m talking to you.
  3. Citizens shall not be forced to attend church as a mark of their American-ness. Yes, Pat Robertson, I’m talking to you. And to the Grahams. And the Falwells. And fundamentalists of all stripes: Christian, Judaic, Islamic. The Founding Arguers were not a majority of religious men; Thomas Jefferson was an anti-cleric and most emphatically not a supporter of organized religion – witness the Jefferson Bible, in which Jefferson stripped all supernatural incidents, like raising-from-the-dead and angelic visitations, from his text. Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. Citizens have the responsibility to respect the religious beliefs, or lack thereof, of their fellow citizens. Including the freedom to run screaming from an onslaught of proselytizing (look it up, fool).
  4. No citizen shall be forced to show papers, unless they’re re-entering the US at an international border. Yes, Arizona, I’m talking to  you. Citizens have the responsibility to apply for a passport, to keep said passport current, and not whine if they’re held up at a US border for failing to possess that proof of citizenship.
  5. Citizens do not have to bear witness against themselves. However, if captured on video knocking over a liquor store, dragging someone into an alley against their will, or bashing someone over the head with a 5 iron, they have the responsibility to admit they’re idiots and take their punishment. Really. Oh, and if you’re caught on Twitter sharing pix of your privates, admit it immediately and move on. PLEASE. Yes, Anthony, I’m talkin’ to you.

OK, so it’s only (5), not an exact equivalent to the (10) in the Bill of Rights, but I think that if this Bill of Responsibilities got some traction, we might see a little less “brainless” and a bit more “think-before-acting” among our citizenry.

Which could only be a good thing in this very vocal, contentious, free, messy, wonderful US of A.

Happy Independence Day, everyone – now let’s start acting like we’ve read the Constitution & the Bill of Rights, and assume the responsibilities that come with freedom.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

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