There was a time when I used to enjoy the Fourth of July as much as anyone. As a kid growing up in a small, suburban town in America, it was a highlight of the summer. This was the 1970s and we lived at the corner of Main and Broad, just up the street from the firehouse, the family-owned pharmacy, and the Trolley Stop deli.
Our house was situated on the fifty yard line for parades. People would line up in front of our house to watch the local high school marching band, the fire trucks, some classic cars, a few floats and a handful of politicians and dignitaries. They would throw candy to the kids, people would wave, and we waved back.
When we got a bit older, we rode our bikes around, weaving in and out of the parade, being scolded by adults who knew us by name, ignoring everyone and carrying on. It felt like a party, long before we knew the social lubricant of alcohol. It felt special.
Later, it was an excuse for a backyard BBQ, a party with friends, a three day weekend. You’d get hammered, play horseshoes and eat six types of charred animal flesh. Cold beer, hot weather and grilled meat.
There is a scene in the movie “Sand Lot” that takes place on the evening of July 4th, the only night of the year when the kids could play a night game, the sky lit up by the fireworks. That scene always gets me.
“There was only one night game a year,” says the narrator. “The whole sky would brighten up with fireworks, giving us just enough light for a game. We played our best then because, I guess, we all felt like big leaguers, under the lights of some great stadium.”
It doesn’t hurt that Ray Charles is singing “America, the Beautiful.”
Today we’re more likely to hear Lee Greenwood sing his freedom porn, yammering on about God, the flag, pride, and soldiers who died so he could profit from horrible songwriting. It makes me want to throw up it’s so saccharine and mawkish.
But there is another moment from a movie that comes to mind. In Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” there is a scene meant to juxtapose the two groups of men in the platoon. There are those with Elias smoking dope and singing “Tracks of my Tears” by Smokey Robinson, dancing and singing and holding onto one another. Then there are the followers of Barnes, the Boy Scouts, the true believers. They’re playing cards and drinking beer. Listening to Merle Haggard singing “Okie From Muskogee” and talking about how much they enjoy killing the enemy.
Smokey sings, “People say I’m the life of the party, because I tell a joke or two. Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, deep inside I’m blue. So take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer, it’s easy to trace, the tracks of my tears”
Merle counters with, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take our trips on LSD. We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street. We like livin’ right, and bein’ free. I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, a place where even squares can have a ball. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse, and white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.”
At the end of the movie, the narrator Chris wraps it up saying, “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves….The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days as I’m sure Elias will be, fighting with Barnes for what Rhah called possession of my soul. There are times since, I’ve felt like the child born of those two fathers. But, be that as it may, those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach to others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.”
America is a warring nation, founded through a bloody revolution and raised by a nearly endless and constant stream of wars, conflicts, police actions and skirmishes. Our national anthem is a war song, written about a bombardment. During sporting events, we worship and fetishize the military as if they are gods we must please. Of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, what we quaintly call the Bill of Rights, most Americans can only tell you about the first two, with many believing that the second is there to enforce the first, but only if they’re the ones speaking. This is the natural conclusion of an overarmed populace who believe they are chosen by God himself to rule the world.
Of course, if you know anything about American history, none of this is new. We have fought amongst ourselves, as well as anyone else we could find stupid enough to take us on. But until quite recently, I guess we were able to rationalize the idea that we were certainly not a perfect country, that no one is, and that we were better than most.
Then we elected Trump and American’s true colors came out in ways we simply couldn’t talk our way out of. We didn’t just have a past, stained with deeply troubling racism, a white supremacy problem and an exceptionalist colonial mindset. It seemed that everything we stood for has apparently been a lie. The political Right didn’t care about small government and traditional Christian values after all. They cared about being in power, no matter what the cost. They didn’t care about the rule of law, they cared only about what would best serve their own interests.
Half the county wasn’t actually interested in a democratic, pluralistic society any longer. They weren’t interested in personal liberty or free speech. They were fine with a theocracy, if it was their faith tradition, or even an autocracy, as long as it was their guy in charge. Freedom wasn’t a universal value, but word in a song and a way to signal your tribal affiliation.
The flag, the anthem, the entire idea of patriotism became wrapped up in xenophobic, white nationalism, with the military as its mascot. They paraded in squads of monster trucks, flying American flags alongside of Confederate flags, and did so through Black neighborhoods, terrorizing the residents with glee, as if they were the Klan reborn, making one more night ride.
Athletes were booed. Boycotts called. Politicians threatened. Citizens assaulted. Finally, they gathered in the nation’s capitol, armed for battle, carrying zip ties and pepper spray, and conspired to stop a free and fair election with force.
Being a patriotic American became code for something far more sinister then hot dogs and cold beer. It became a symbol of everything we once thought America was against.
Trumpism has transformed the American right into white pride nationalists with aggressive tribalistic tendencies. They have been convinced through a right media bubble that theirs is a fight for supremacy or death, and there can be no compromise. Anything that the Left wants, has to be bad, even if it’s good for them. Part of the fight is to ensure that anyone on the Left, from Blacks to Liberal elites, suffer as much as possible. Own the libtards.
In the movie Platoon, soon after the platoon learns of the death of Elias, Barnes, the consummate military man, tells Elias’ men, “Death? What do y’all know about death?” It’s a dare to kill a man who considers himself appointed by God.
So it is in this fractured, tenuous and dangerous environment, at what we hope is the tail-end of a global pandemic that has killed well over 600,000 Americans, we come to the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
Despite what you will see this weekend, it is not a holiday to worship the awesome power of the United States military. It’s not a holiday to mourn the soldiers who died. It’s not a holiday to honor the men and women who chose to fight in foreign wars at their nation’s bidding, often for dubious reasons. It’s Independence Day.
It’s supposed to be a celebration of freedom from tyranny and oppression. An observance of America as the City on a Hill that might inspire the downtrodden and oppressed.
But once you’ve stained the symbols of America with fascist ideology and white supremacy, it’s hard to sit back and accept that America is the land of the free, let alone the brave. It’s hard to find your way to ambivalence, let alone pride. You start creeping towards disgust at what we have become. Then finally, the realization that this isn’t actually new and maybe there wasn’t that much to be proud of in the first place. It was all based on a myth of American exceptionalism.
I didn’t choose this path. It was chosen for me. I didn’t storm the capitol with a flag and beat police officers with the staff. I don’t fly a confederate flag and pretend that it has historical significance to the people of Maine. I didn’t turn a peaceful protest about the epidemic of police killing unarmed Black men in America into a partisan fist fight.
I’m just reacting to it.
I am not as hopeful as I once was that we might be able to bring this country back from the brink of total collapse. The government is frozen, gummed up by self-involved grifters and opportunistic demagogues. The Supreme Court is entirely partisan and no longer trustworthy as a bastion of hope for the rule of law. Our neighbors are armed to the teeth and ready to fight for things they don’t even understand.
So, I while I continue to fly the flag in front of my house—because it belongs to me and all citizens of this fractured republic—I will not involve myself in the self-congratulatory nature of a holiday set aside to glorify our checkered past. I’ll take this time to reflect on how we got here, and struggle to imagine a way out, a way forward.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, over the land of the free and the home of the brave? It’s unclear.
As the great American songwriter Bruce Springsteen once sang, “Hey man, did you see that? His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud. I wonder what the dude was sayin’. Or was he just lost in the flood?”
We’ve been blinded by the light and lost in the flood. Were we lost, oh, tell me, tell me, man. Were we lost?