This is not the first stressful period in American life. Watergate, Vietnam, World War II and the Great Depression are only some of the events from the last several decades to test the durability of the American experiment. Nevertheless, the strain of terrorism and the country’s raw divisions can make it easy to overlook the overarching fact: The United States remains the gold standard for millions who crave freedom and opportunity.
Most Americans understand that truth, even if they don’t often think about it. But this is Independence Day, a very good day to take the time to do that. We celebrate the actions of some brave men who risked all – their lives, their fortunes and their “sacred Honor” – by signing the Declaration of Independence.
As Americans, by and large, we take our freedom for granted. It is a variation on the aphorism that familiarity breeds contempt. Leave it to a new citizen to remind the rest of us the precious nature of our birthright.
That citizen is Buffalo’s J.P. Bak. Born in Denmark, and previously a resident of several other countries, he has lived in the United States for two decades. He was an immigrant. But on May 25, in a joyous ceremony in the federal courthouse on Delaware Avenue, Bak became an American.
The self-described father, husband and entrepreneur memorably described the event in Sunday’s editions of The Buffalo News, on the cover of the Viewpoints section. He wrote: “It is safe to say that I have lived and breathed the American dream for nearly 20 years, but I have never felt more American than I did on May 25: the day when I – along with so many other smiling faces – became a citizen of the United States of America.”
It wasn’t just that he became an American, but that he and the others taking the oath were welcomed to their citizenship by Americans who attended the ceremony. “We’re so happy that you picked the United States for your future,” those onlookers told their new countrymen.
That’s the sign of a great country – not one that boasts of its magnificence, but one that remains humble enough, and open enough, to recognize the heart and muscle that immigrants bring to a nation of other immigrants. Bak is but one example.
He has lived in the United States for two decades, in New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh and, today – “most happily,” he says – in Buffalo. Here, he leads the company he founded, Bak USA, a social enterprise that builds mobile computers at a factory on Michigan Avenue. There, according to a recent News story, the company has put together a remarkably diverse workforce of 75 people, from 14 countries and who speak 22 languages. Plans are to employ 267 workers by the end of 2019.
Bak’s story is the promise of immigrants who, according to some statistics, are four times more likely to become millionaires than those who were born here. The reason: They know what they’ve got, because they know what they’ve left behind.
What they’ve got is a country that has always trended upward. There are bad times but, like the stock market, America is a generally rising proposition. That’s both despite and because of our never-ending arguments among ourselves. At their best, those debates, fueled by the freedom provided by the First Amendment, keep the country generally on a healthy track, drifting neither too far to the left nor to the right.
Today, we honor the sacrifices of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, one of the most glorious documents ever written, and of the uncounted thousands who paid the price of putting the country on the path to achieving the goals of the declaration.
We are not perfect, and often enough far from it. Slavery, Jim Crow, McCarthyism and other shameful episodes blemish our history. What is remarkable is that our form of government, which gives rise to our character, has allowed us to overcome our flaws, or at least to begin that work.
That’s the promise of America – not that we are inherently better people, but that by committing to certain freedoms and to a style of government, we grant ourselves the opportunity, painful though it sometimes is, to become better.
Two hundred and forty-one years later, we continue to test our ability to proceed along that path. The arguments rage. But it is heartening, indeed, when good men such as J.P. Bak take the time to reaffirm the truths that are self-evident – even if we sometimes need reminding.