Americans are told, on this 228th anniversary of the independence of the United States of America, that we are currently more divided, more polarized, than we have been in many years.
Well, not really.
Frequently cited in support of this argument is the current state of division in the Congress, which seems to have paralyzed that body. The only legislation it seems capable of passing is a massive, expensive Christmas tree bill that benefits each member's favorite lobbyist, or, if needed in this day of districts certain to re-elect its member, comes with lots of chewy sweets in it for the district in question.
The other supposed source of the alleged division of the American people is the troubled presidency of George W. Bush. Disputed from the start by the election fun and games in the state governed by his brother, Mr. Bush's presidency has been characterized not by the consensus policies that the narrow outcome would have suggested, but by pursuit of a hard right conservative agenda which has, in fact, led to some polarization of the American people.
But is it unprecedented? Is it as bad as all that?
Or is it, in fact, fairly normal for American politics?
Americans do get riled about politics, and for many of them, things could not possibly have been worse in the past than what they are experiencing right now.
But consider 1974. In a way it seems hard to imagine that President Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign for lying about the fact that his campaign people tried to bug Democratic Party headquarters.
That doesn't mean that what he did was right, but at the time the Watergate break-in and the Nixon administration's cover-up of its role was viewed as a serious threat to the survival of the American democratic system. Yet America came out of its "long national nightmare" quite nicely.
Can we also recall the enormous fuss, and the portentous terms in which Monica's blue dress and the definition of "sexual relations" were discussed during former President Clinton's second term, recently recalled in his weighty book? Yet the republic carried on.
Yes, we do have some serious problems. The ill-regarded Iraq War has killed a lot of Americans and diverted pots of the country's money from other, obvious needs.
The state of the economy, particularly the availability of jobs, is giving Americans the jitters, especially those who are overextended financially.
But, all in all, things aren't so bad.
That isn't an argument to vote for Mr. Bush, nor for Mr. Kerry. What it is instead is an argument to make a serious effort on this Independence Day to put these issues in perspective, to stress what pulls us together, rather than what pushes us apart as a people.
Virtually all Americans agree on a lot of things.
We don't want our young men and women to be killed anywhere, except for the very best of reasons, and only if the reasons have been explained to us carefully.
We want Americans to live as well as possible - all of us.
So let's think about what we agree on as the fireworks flash red, white, and blue across the sky tonight, and stirring music reminds us of the America we all love.