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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Still land of the free? Absolutely

Explaining independence in our country can be complicated.

Explaining independence in our country can be complicated. Credit: iStock

The Fourth of July has always been a doubly special holiday for me, since it comes only three days after the anniversary my family's arrival here in 1980, as refugees from the Soviet Union. Now, 35 years later, America's birthday takes place in a time of both hope and division. Over the weekend, cheery pictures of flags and fireworks in my Twitter feed alternated with posts asking whether America is still the land of the free.

In some ways, the vision articulated by the Declaration of Independence more than two centuries ago -- that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights -- is remarkably alive. America's first black president is completing his second term. A woman is a front-runner in the 2016 presidential race. The Supreme Court's ruling striking down state bans on same-sex marriage has been celebrated as a new step toward fulfilling the promise of freedom and equality for all.

Yet millions of Americans see the same developments in a different light. Where some see equal opportunity, others see the rise of pernicious identity politics that reduce people to labels based on race and gender. Where some see liberty and the pursuit of happiness, others see a tyrannical judicial elite imposing its will on the people and forcing states to revise their majority-approved definition of marriage. Many conservatives and libertarians fear the health care law represents an unprecedented grab of power by the federal government. And people across a spectrum of ideologies worry that the war on terrorism is giving the federal government a mandate to trample our constitutional liberties.

Our political discourse seems to grow more acrimonious by the year, if not by the day. Much of the right sees liberals as degenerate usurpers. Much of the left sees conservatives as heartless bigots.

The Internet, a remarkable invention that can give virtually everyone a platform for expressing his or her opinions, has been a decidedly mixed blessing for the political culture. In some ways, we have more casual contact than ever with fellow citizens of different social backgrounds and beliefs. But we are also withdrawing more than ever into enclaves of like-minded people in which political opponents are ridiculed at best and demonized at worst.

Meanwhile, a new tide of what was once called "political correctness" has turned into a unique assault on freedom of speech, particularly on college campuses. A new generation of "social justice" activists mixes the language of politics with that of therapy to demand "safety" from words and ideas that are said to traumatize oppressed minorities and survivors of sexual violence.

Where do we go from here, and can we find common ground?

Right now, many conservatives, libertarians and old-school liberals are joining forces to repel the threat to free speech. That's a good start. Perhaps the next step is for more of us to not simply tolerate but listen to different points of view and make an effort to understand the other side's concerns. People who defend the freedom of Christian bakers and florists not to provide services to same-sex weddings are not always bigots. People who believe equal access to commerce is more important than faith are not necessarily bullies.

Our fractured civic culture does not seem so bad when I look back at my former homeland. In Russia, a real tyranny has banished the free exchange of ideas to small pockets of the Internet and squelched all potential challenges to the government. America is still the land of the free -- as long as we make sure that new generations learn to cherish freedom.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.