What does it mean to be American? You don’t have to look much farther than the Marshfield square this Thursday to know.
It means wearing red, white and blue. It means kids waving flags. It means friends coming together. it means standing silently to salute our veterans.
The right to peaceably assemble is one we exercise joyfully on Independence Day. I would suggest that we as Americans also take a moment to appreciate another right that is less obvious and less colorful, but is of critical importance to all of our lives, and that is the freedom of the press.
When it was adopted in 1791, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution spoke of “the press” and meant mass communication — the media. The printing press was the primary means of distributing information to the masses, and shouting from atop a handy soap box was its closest second.
Calling the media "the press" has always been a literary move — something your English teacher would have called metonymy, meaning that some object symbolizes a more complex whole. It's like how some might disrespectfully call a woman a skirt or a businessperson a suit. We might say "The pen is mightier than the sword," but through metonymy, we mean something more nuanced — reasoned argument carries more force for change than military action ever could.
We often remember soldiers on patriotic holidays, but as a journalist, I like to take a moment to think about the writers, too. Our nation was the result of many swords (or muskets) and many pens alike. It was a “Declaration” of independence that got things rolling, after all, and its 56 signers were committing an act of high treason against England to write their names below that bold statement. They were putting their lives on the line for an idea of independence expressed in the written word.
Maybe at times a sword is what’s needed, but sometimes, surely a pen is the right tool for the job. In our democracy, legislators do the heroic work of writing and revising bills that become laws. Judges write decisions. Nations write treaties.
Here in Webster County, citizens write their legislators. Less frequently, we take a thick Sharpie to a piece of poster board and literally stand up for what we believe in. We offer our deeply held opinions in social media posts. It’s all something we have a right to do as citizens of our great nation, and left or right, red or blue, we participate in this beautiful and cherished privilege of democracy.
Some also write letters to the editor. Last week, a reader expressed his disappointment with community leaders for allowing alcohol sales in the heart of the county, the Webster County Courthouse square. And today, another reader expresses his approval for the growth and the blooming of our town. Reasoned debate is how we get things done in our country, and it energizes us to see it.
The Marshfield Mail is happy to offer space on its opinion page for a parade of local opinions. We hope that you will continue to speak up, and we welcome you to exercise your right to express yourself in your newspaper.
Writing, after all, is one important way Americans exercise their true independence.