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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

When in the Course of Human Events...

I searched far and wide for just the right topic or story to discuss on America's birthday. There's a lot to pick from these days. There's the commutation and probable pardon of convicted Bushie Scooter Libby. There's the on-going war in Iraq, where an apparently unforseeable counter-insurgency is being compared to our own upstart beginnings. And since this is a forum devoted to education, there's always the continuing debate over accountability or the increasingly polarizing "math wars." But none of that really captures the then-and-now dichotomy of our great nation as well as this.

“I think it represents actually, well, America — what New York is. It’s something you expect from a city like this.”

What is this uniquely American event? Why it's Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest, of course. In a world where myriad people starve to death each day, no city represents the spectrum of wealth better than the Big Apple. While people live in the shadows of the subway tunnels or lie helpless in alleyways, a few iron-stomached hopefuls gather at Coney Island in celebration of gluttony, where the sin which may well prove deadliest for our American empire will unleash itself approximately 4 hours after this posting.

“Independence Day is a wonderful time to celebrate our freedoms,” the mayor said, looking rather summery in boat shoes and lightweight slacks. “Now I don’t know what the founding fathers ever thought about this, but the right to eat as many hot dogs as possible — although not expressly named in the Bill of Rights — was no doubt on the minds of the framers.”

The over-eating metaphors abound. In a country where despite medical advances, the current generation may have a shorter life-expectancy than the last due to the epidemic of obesity, our figurative fattiness threatens to undermine this experiment in democracy. We thumb our noses at the famished as we choke down our hot dogs. We laugh in the face of the energy deprived, as we root for stock cars besplattered with the emblems of capitalistic excess as they drive in circles to our delight. When will it be enough? At what point will we be able to push back from the table and say when?

It's hard not to be a hypocrite. Like everyone else, I've grown accustomed to having what I want, when I want it, and more of it than I could possibly need. But if ever I need to be reminded of where that line of selfish behavior leads, I can always take the D, F, Q, or N trains to Coney Island, where the swallowing whole of processed beef entrails is now considered athletic, and the smell of sweat and frankfurters barely masks the scent of Rome burning.

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