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Independence Day

It's an odd feeling, spending July 4th outside the US.

Last year, I was in Bangkok, taking things slowly, quietly recovering from my encounter with dengue fever a month previous, and decided to head out to the big expat celebration that the American Chamber of Commerce sponsors there. Thailand, of course, has a sizable American population, and here I was suddenly at home. I was assured that the hot dogs were authentic mystery meat, the cheeseburgers were on the grill, and the beer was Sam Adams or Budweiser. Some middle-aged guys were playing classic rock covers up on stage, and the VFW was selling apple pie.

Not far from everyones' minds were the recent redshirt protests. I had visited the protest camp in early May 2010, and found it more like an enormous outdoor music festival than anything else. During the month I was gone from Thailand, things had gotten more violent, and I returned to find the burnt husk of the Central World shopping mall, where I had watched Up in the Air just a few weeks previous. It seemed now as if a limit had been reached, a tacit understanding between the opposing sides made, and future elections certain.

What struck me about the Thai protests was that, unlike some other countries I had visited, there was the sense that this was part of a process, one that culminated this week in elections that were won by the Thai opposition. Yes, the country still has enormous problems -- but there's a sense of ownership. I was reminded of the extremely tight American elections of 2000 or 2004: the system, the society, survives through compromise and acquiescence. The US ambassador to Thailand made a little speech which alluded to "shared democratic values" between Thailand and America, and despite the eighteen military coups in eighty years and the lèse majesté laws, I do think that's true, because the Thai people expect to be able to protest without fear in their own streets and take a role in their political process. There's many places where people simply do not expect or demand that of their government and their peers.

This year, I find myself living in the United States again. The American independence day message is perhaps uniquely evangelical and ecumenical: the Declaration of Independence begins with a dissertation on universal principles about the rights of Man, freedom, and so on. These are not uniquely American values, or ones that America does best in every way, but they are at the core of the national narrative.

As I listen to fireworks go off in the distance, I'm reminded that they're not going off in Tokyo, or Bangkok, or London. I didn't realize until I celebrated the Fourth outside of America that it's also a holiday free of idealism, and full of arbitrary national pride in things like hot dogs or classic rock. But I'm proud to live in a country that aspires to those universal ideals, not just for Americans, or for Thais, but for everyone.