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Evocative photos of men who were around for the American Revolution. They make you imagine those times, before pretty much everything we now see around us even existed.

Fast-forward 200+ years. I look around and I see a nation of flinty, hard-working, well-educated, modest people. Who are proud of their nation’s gains but constantly work together to improve, resulting in a country ranked at or near the top of most quality of life surveys. Who have civilized, highly-advanced, safe, cultured cities, which people enjoy yet also crave the rustic life of their rural cottages, where they can get their hands dirty and enjoy the simple, even austere, pleasures of their ancestors. You can really sense the thread back to our early founding fathers in these people, and appreciate the fine results of those long-ago sacrifices.

Then I remember I’m in Finland.

Then again, they’ve only been independent for almost 100 years, so still time to make a mess of things. But it’s impossible not to notice how Finnish society gets so many hard things right and we seem to get even the easy stuff wrong these days. Of course I understand we are infinitely different countries, and the complexity and size of America makes everything more difficult.

On this 4th of July abroad, I think about what I love about my country and wouldn’t trade for anything. But being away also gives quite of bit of perspective. Yes, many things have improved in the big picture over our long haul, not least the situation for minorities and women compared to past generations. And I know what you’re thinking, yes, the US even with its flaws can be a pretty exciting (ahem) place compared with the sometimes bland perfection of the Nordic countries.

Yet we are up to our eyeballs in so much that shames the legacy of those who created this country. I don’t have to list our ills. Frankly we probably wouldn’t even agree about what the ills are, though that would be a helpful first step.

Instead of (or at least in addition to) an annual spectacle of mindless whoosh-bang-bang, I wish we could use the 4th of July as a annual reminder of the need for self-improvement, for reexamining priorities, shedding petty baggage, and renewing our internal sense of the social contract. Not to be a buzzkill, but it would be great if we could get in the habit of remodeling ourselves as worthy heirs to this country. I used to think of the US as innately tending toward continual, almost compulsive self-improvement.

We certainly seem to have gotten away from that in many regards, to put it kindly.