Thursday, July 3, 2008


What is it about large explosives that cause my face to break out into a wide grin? I love fireworks. I love people getting together and grilling things and swimming and helping young children hold a sparkler for the first time.

Why fireworks? Perhaps if I'd recently spent time in a war-torn country I'd find the smell of acrid smoke, the bright flashes, and the earth-rumbling echoes less recreational than most Americans will tomorrow.

Bombs bursting in air: do we set off fireworks to signal that we've "won"? Do we ignite fuses and ooh and aww in symbolic declaration that we don't need our weapons anymore, we've won our independence, so we have extras we can set off on holidays?

Or is it a simple aesthetic of light, color, sound, and design that fuse to create a multisensory celebration? Fireworks, after all, mark the New Year in many countries, or Guy Fawkes day, or Bilbo Baggins' birthday, or even, in fact, my own wedding reception (that took place in January).

Event producers for cities this Fourth are speculating that crowds will stick near their homes for Independence Day (we don't call it that anymore - why?). Gas prices make extensive travel on the long weekend inaccessible for many Americans this year. It would be nice to drive to Indiana or Ohio to visit extended family. But gas prices are making giant deluxe packages of fireworks actually look cheap.

And here we come to the finale of the explosive production: where has the spirit of independence gone? Two hundred odd years ago, settlers were dumping products into the harbor in protest. This story is told as historical lore illustrating the boldness of the American revolutionaries. The unique pioneer spirit.

I have yet to see a picket sign outside of a gas station, courthouse, Shell oil company, Exxon Mobil, or the New York Stock Exchange, whichever you choose to blame or use as a platform for protest. Be it gas-guzzling Hummers, oil speculators, environmental limitations on drilling, or record-breaking profits for oil companies, $4 A GALLON GAS MUST STOP. And I do NOT accept one analyst's conclustion that "the days of cheap gas are a thing of the past." A scant ten years ago I recall filling station marquees announcing 89 cents per gallon.

I have yet to see empty highways from employees, employers, citizens, immigrants, and visitors who - in national solidarity - stay home for a day from the grocer's, work, church, and school. What would oil companies do if they saw millions of people walking into Manhattan?

Let's illustrate the cost: children are not driven to a frog exhibit at an aquarium and hour and a half away because gas is too expensive on top of the admittance. They lose an educational experience. Brothers and sisters are unable to drive three hours to spend a holiday weekend together because it's a choice between groceries or gas. Instead of reading scholarly works in my field, as I enjoy doing occasionally, I find myself clipping coupons and microreading ads to find the best deals on chicken. Community colleges are struggling to find ways to accomodate students who want to further their education but can't afford to drive into the city. Churches are rearranging their schedules so that activities all fall on one day, saving multiple trips.

It is evident that the cost of high gas prices is not just a loss of disposable income: it's a loss of education, a loss of exposure to beauty and other cultures (who can afford to fly?), a loss of community services (did you know the senior citizen centers are struggling to raise money to pay for gas to take the elderly to doctor's appointments?), a loss, in fact, of independence.

Independence, one can easily argue, depends partly on the freedom to travel. Not luxuriously, or extensively. Not all the time, or at any time, or in any mode. But independence is why Americans have been traveling the interstates since Eisenhower had them laid.

That experts fail to pinpoint causes for skyrocketing gas prices seems to leave ample room to argue for price gauging as evidenced by record-breaking profits. Perhaps from a strict reading of free market dynamics, prices should be allowed to raise until lessening demand causes them to fall. I argue, however, that it is unethical to make record profits on the backs of average, hard-working, common people.

Spilling oil in the Boston Harbor would be a much more disastrous act than dumping tea into it. We'd be scrubbing the black substance off of ducks with a toothbrush for months. But the lack of activism about the restrictive prices of gasoline is appalling.

Where are all the hippies now?

I want my independence back.

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