Contemplating the upcoming 4th of July holiday weekend, my 12 year-old son, quite aware that all things are never equal, asks, "Why do some states outlaw fireworks?"
"Because fireworks can be dangerous and some people don't use them properly," I explain, adding, "But it's hard to make laws against stupidity."
"What do you mean," he questions.
"I mean, there are some things laws can't force people to do, regardless of the punishment. Like laws can't make you love someone you don't. Outlawing things such as fireworks that bring out stupidity in people doesn't make people any smarter. Laws like that usually just make people sneakier."
I think of the sentence in a letter John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776, in regard to America's independence from the mother country: It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. And it strikes me how important it is to choose our words carefully, to consider the consequences of our utterances, and to remain mindful of the residual effects of our declarations.
It is difficult to say whether John Adams foretold the future or set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy, but July 4th takes ahold of folks in a way that no other holiday does. Men get an irresistible and inexplicable urge to take off their shirts and parade around the cars in the driveway scratching their bellies and drinking beer. Friendly games of horseshoes become death matches, or, worse, fistfights; guns occasionally add to the revelry.
Sentimentality over the birth of our nation and the liberty it affords the citizens oft incites men, who otherwise would not, to swig liquid of unknown origin and potency from pickle jars. And it provokes mothers, generally safety-minded, to enthusiastically encourage, "That's a good one, Honey! Light another one like that," as a young child ignites glittering rockets with red glares. And it allows babes in white diapers to toddle about displaying, with great pomp, waves of sticky watermelon juice on chest, chin and gut.
As all of these images flow through my head and I wonder whether John Adams would appreciate how we have implemented his recommendations for celebration, my son rejoinders, "But if we didn't have any rules . . ." I believe we are on the verge of engaging in an intellectual discourse on the legitimacy of legislation in society, an appropriate topic prior to the pending Independence Day weekend. "If we had no rules," he repeats, "it would take the fun out of things. There's a thrill in trying not to get caught."
Yes, of course, I silently agree, calculating how to proceed with the debate. How do I impress upon my son, without encouraging him to go in that direction, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, uniquely American ideals quoted in the Declaration of Independence, on a sub-level include the right to stupidity.
"Our founding fathers," I carefully begin, "John Adams included, knew that man, stupid or not, ultimately desires the liberty to bear responsibility for charting his own destiny in life and that even plenitude of laws can not stop a man from setting course into the mouth of a maelstrom, if that's what he makes up his mind to do for the sake of personal happiness, however fleeting."
Being 12, the child responds within his limited understanding of political philosophy, "So that means I can launch some mortars this year?"
Among humans, most especially melting-pot Americans, misinterpretations run rampant throughout all manner of communication.
"Yes, but use your right to stupidity wisely."
(Lucy Adams is a syndicated columnist, freelance writer, and author of If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny. She lives in Thomson, GA. E-mail Lucy at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her Web site, www.IfMama.com.