Life, Liberty Wasted in the Pursuit of Sappiness

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Eric L. Rozenman is a journalist in Washington, D.C

Thomas Jefferson nearly ruined our vacation. His misunderstood phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” is ruining America.

An earlier draft of the Declaration of Independence read “life, liberty and property.” Young Tom should have left well enough alone.

Today, many confuse Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness with lyrics of the rock group, Kiss: “I wanna rock all night, and party everyday.” Judging from fellow vacationers this August in the Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic states, we are happiest either dangling from corkscrew roller coasters or turning left from right-hand lanes, screaming at anyone who objects.


Juveniles in Independence Hall enjoy a little too much liberty, with nose rings, navel rings, eyebrow rings and jeans drooping off their butts. So too their parents, staring at the Liberty Bell across the street: tank top-wearing mamas with tattoos, papas with diamond-studded earlobes.

And, to put this delicately, since when did XXL become a standard size? Descendants of Indian-fighting pioneers, prairie-crossing homesteaders, defenders of the Alamo have become porcine couch potatoes who can barely hike to the refrigerator.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where McDonald’s, Burger King and Sbarro long ago replaced service restaurants, we don’t just pursue happiness, we buy it. Or at least the junk food facsimile. “A bacon-cheeseburger, super-sized fries and a 32-ounce Jolt Cola. Wanna sundae with that?” To go. Our fellow citizens are a restless lot with short attention spans.

Vacation exposure to commercial radio and motel cable television helps explain an army of grungy Ponce de Leons clogging the interstates. The music, advertisements and programs amount to one technically sophisticated, substantively moronic come-on for the fountain of adolescence, just around the next product, the next celebrity.

Junior high girls ape the apparel of singers like Britney Spears, as if soft-core pornography was liberating. Surly man-boys wear pants cut off weirdly at mid-calf, chrome chain necklaces and T-shirts reading, “Please excuse me, I have explosive diarrhea” or “I’m busy, you’re ugly, have a nice day.”

Forget the bald eagle; our new national symbol is a juvenile pit bull in heat.

When happiness is misunderstood as instant gratification, when we pretend hip-hop hostility is music, then rudeness becomes self-affirmation. No wonder staid 7-Up is trying to recoup soft drink market share from Sprite by shouting “Up Yours!” in a commercial.


The girl in the new red Neon in Philadelphia, weaving without signaling through traffic on the interstate at 80 miles per hour, a foot away from the car in front, and the white-haired, rat-tailed old man in Ohio doing the same in his black BMW, exemplify our civic delinquents pursuing happiness with a desperate vanity. They, much more than any children by Sally Hemings, are Jefferson’s illegitimate offspring.

Blissful ignorance. The Europeans who first settled here sought freedom, in particular freedom for their own religions. They knew establishing themselves in the New World would be difficult. Pursuing happiness, in the sense of fun, did not apply.

Jefferson was referring to the moral contentment resulting from employing one’s life and liberty in personally and socially useful ways. Ironically, if Americans don’t understand this, we will pursue happiness forever without finding it.