"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. . ."

In the '90s, of course, we recite these words with a corrosive edge of irony. As Newsweek so smugly put it, Thomas Jefferson said all men are created equal, yet he kept slaves: "Anybody got a problem with that?"

Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive, but to be hip is very heaven. How happily we condescend to the authors of our independence. "Enlightenment" thinkers they thought themselves; yet how much more enlightened are we, who perceive the motes in their eyes.

Academic "deconstructionists" teach us that what happened in Philadelphia on that hot summer day 218 years ago had no meaning in itself, except as an expression of the racial, gender and class biases of white male aristocrats. Thus the Declaration can mean nothing to us, except as we assign meaning from our own racial, gender and class perspectives.

All "Men" are created equal, eh? Then how about wo-men, Mr. Jefferson, eh? All are endowed by their "Creator," eh? That would be the particular Judeo-Christian "Creator," an ethnocentric figure unknown and unworshiped by the world's majority. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," eh? In a slave-holding society, forsooth!

Once we could see beyond our noses. Certainly the makers of the Declaration were creatures of their own time, full of faults and contradictions, as we are. But they were able to see past their time, as we often cannot. They understood that the important thing about universal human rights is not our failure so far to perfect them, but our ability and duty to begin afresh each day the task and privilege of envisioning them, cherishing them in our hearts and promoting them in our lives.

The world cherishes those who made the American revolution. George Washington's statue stands in London's Trafalgar Square. In Geneva, the Mayflower settlers and Roger Williams take their places in a thoughtful monument to those who fought and sometimes died so that we might enjoy liberty of conscience. In China's Tiananmen Square, students looking past the barriers of race and ethnicity chose as their symbol the American Statue of Liberty.

The world respects the Fourth of July as stirring history and living inspiration. What a pity if we have lost self-respect. What a loss to us.

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