THE FROTH OF JULY
Im sick of patriotism.
As I write this, its the Fourth of July. Down the block in the wonderful little community I live in, an Independence Day program is going on. Small children dressed as Uncle Sam or Betsy Ross or just wearing red, white and blue are marching up the street waving little American flags as their parents applaud. Teenagers are raising the national colors up the community flagpole. Grownups are delivering talks about the glories of American history. At the end, a minister will deliver a benediction no doubt telling us how we should thank God that we live in the wonderful U.S. of A. Periodically throughout it all, people will sing patriotic songs--My Country, Tis of Thee, The Star-Spangled Banner and the amazingly vacuous "God Bless America."
Im boycotting it all. American patriotism is a terribly dangerous thing.
I look at those children and teenagers, and the first phrase that comes to mind is youth indoctrination. Were telling those kids that the U.S.A. is the best country in the world, period, and the mindless flag-waving we encourage in them is a characteristic many of them will carry into adulthood, leading to political ignorance and a lack of that vigilance which, as the saying goes, is the necessary price of our liberties. The grownups will reinforce the idea of American superiority by telling tales that ignore the black moments of our history: the smallpox-laden blankets given to the Indians; the witch hunts of the 1600s and the 1950s and now the 2000s; the various anti-First Amendment laws our Congress and Presidents institute every time this land of the supposed brave gets a scare; the union-busting, boss-protecting, worker-exploiting national administrations from 1789 to 2003. The preacher and the songs will ask God to bless our country, as if America deserves Gods special attention. Its all flummery--carbonated philosophy with the nutritional value of soda pop.
I call this The Froth of July.
Some year Id like to see us break out of our self-congratulatory jingoism and sing God Bless Liberia or God Bless Somalia or God Bless Arabia--lands that deserve, and need, divine beneficence at least as much as we do. Id like to see children carry the flags of many countries, having learned the histories of each one. Id like to hear lecturers tell us of the glories of other nations: of Frances language and art; of Russias intellectual richness and depth of soul; of Swedens sympathy for the aged and the deprived; of Englands eloquence and sense of history; of The Netherlands sense of humor; of Greeces passion and Italys romance; of Chinas reverence for the aged; of Japans poetry; of Australias affability.
Just once, on the Fourth of July, Id like to hear the preachers pray for Africa and South America, Northern Ireland and the Middle East.
Yes, yes, I know that the Fourth of July is set aside to celebrate Americas independence, not the rest of the world. But lately our country seems less something to celebrate than something to worry about. The liberties about which The Declaration of Independence speaks are now overshadowed by our fear of terrorism, and while they are in the shadows, some people in power are slowly taking them from us. We can no longer take a book from the library without the CIA knowing about it if they want to. American cells are holding foreign prisoners indefinitely, anonymously, without access to lawyers or the media, and threatening to try them without even permitting them to know the charges or the evidence against them, in violation of the most basic freedoms of the land. (The Declaration, you may recall, speaks of the rights of "all men," not just American citizens.) Freedom of speech in the United States now means freedom either to praise the president or to lose your television show or album sales. There are Supreme Court justices who do not believe in the right of privacy, in your body or in your bedroom, and legislators who want to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage while refusing to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. Soon, if things keep going like this, there will be even more such judges and legislators.
No, I'm in no mood to celebrate this Fourth of July.
The United States, it seems to me today, is an ignorant, superficial, bullying country in love with its own wealth and power and happy to give what little attention it can sustain to movies about high-octane cars. 2 Fast 2 Furious captures us pretty well. Fireworks are the symbol of what goes on in our brains. We have, as a people, little education, less poetry, and almost no soul. Since the Civil War, we have learned almost nothing about suffering. If the United States is the best country in the world to live in, it is simply because it is the richest. Americans as a whole have the most stuff. We lay down the most concrete. We drink the most gasoline. We eat the most meat.
Dont get me wrong. Im thankful I live in a country where I can earn enough to stay healthy today and not worry about going hungry tomorrow. Im thankful I live in a country whose founding principles are a bulwark against tyranny. Im immensely thankful to those who have died in the past to keep tyranny at bay--whatever country they were citizens of.
But the annual celebration of the Froth of July contributes nothing to my gratitude. We would do better to have one day each year when every citizen is required to ask twenty hard questions about our nation--questions such as "Are the nation's elected officials doing everything they can to protect the Bill of Rights?" "Are we handling our military power responsibly?" "Have we earned the respect of other nations?" "Are we sharing our wealth to care for the poor and the hungry and the sick both here and abroad?"
I fear that the usual Fourth of July celebrations are designed precisely to avoid such questions. That's why this year I'm staying home. Let's hope that next year we have a holiday--and a country--more worth celebrating.