Independence Day weekend is fast approaching. “Independence Day” is a more descriptive phrase than “The Fourth of July,” since what we’re celebrating is not a calendar date but our country’s independence, as put forward in an 18th-century declaration.

Los Banos, thanks to the Downtown Association and several sponsors, will mark our country’s independence on July 2 with a day-long Saturday celebration including carnival rides, food and craft vendors and live music, ending with an evening  “Light up the Sky” fireworks display.

Community celebrations are important, especially as we re-gather after the worst of COVID, and the Independence Day weekend is a good time to celebrate. But I wonder how many folks will reflect this weekend on the independence of the United States, as declared in a document ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

The United States didn’t become truly independent until a 1783 a treaty ending the Revolutionary War. But six years earlier the English colony of 13 states boldy declared in writing they were united and independent. This remarkable document also established principles which should, but don’t always, guide us 246 years later.

A similar historical process, related not to a declaration but a proclamation, occurred in 1865—in reverse. Slaves in the Confederacy were proclaimed free on January 1, 1863; the War between the States ended on April 9, 1865; but African-Americans in Texas weren’t notified of their freedom until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay. It’s no wonder they joyfully celebrated Juneteenth.

Perhaps the most important principle of the Declaration of Independence, reaffirmed and expanded in the Emancipation Proclamation, is that “all men are created equal.” (I wish the Declaration had said “all men and women are created equal,” but in the  eighteenth century, writers often used “men” as a noun covering both genders.)

The principle that we are all created equal, as Jefferson wrote, should be self-evident, but it seems today many people still think that some people are more equal than others, or even worse, the dignity of some people should be valued more than the dignity of others. It is also sadly paradoxical that in 1776  some of the signers of the Declaration, which asserted equality for all, were slaveholders.

Nevertheless, the concept, the Declaration’s basic principle, is valid. If all people are created equal we need to respect the life, liberty and rights of every person, not just some.

The words in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States reaffirm this principle, when we say unequivocally that we are ONE nation, under God, INDIVISIBLE, with liberty and justice for ALL (emphasis mine).

That all 13 states in 1776 united into one nation showed how important unity was to our country’s founders. It continues to be affirmed each time  we say in the pledge not only that we are one, but also that this unity cannot and should not be divided, and that liberty and justice is not for some but for all.

All of this is undermined by the current division and antagonism rampant in this country. Americans have always had their differences, often expressed vigorously. But never in my life of three-quarters of a century have I seen such meanness and incivility on such a wide scale.

In particular, many politicians have little or no regard for the dignity of the persons with whom they disagree. It’s not enough for them to say, “Your ideas are wrong.”

These politicians must continue to say that persons who disagree with them are (to quote a Chevy Chase character) “cheap, lying, no-good, rotten, four-flushing, low-life, snake-licking, dirt-eating, overstuffed, ignorant bloodsuckers.”

This is unfortunate. From my experience in dealing with a wide variety of people there is always an opportunity for folks to realize they and their opponents share “common ground.” It’s a realization that they share some—but by no means all—concerns, experiences and ideas.

This common ground becomes an impetus for a civil conversation, during which a person can then attack an idea, not the other person (figuratively or literally).

If two people can share common ground, so can a community or a region. On the Westside of the Central Valley, from Santa Nella through Los Banos and Dos Palos to Firebaugh, I believe residents have more in common than they have differences.

If we could begin by focusing on our similarities, we’d have a better chance of realizing we were all created equal and we are one people, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for everyone.

In the spirit of our founding founders and President Abraham Lincoln, I hope that many Westsiders think about this possibility during the Independence Day holiday.