I barely remember 1976, but whenever I do try to bring up a memory, it’s invariably dominated by some version of the American flag. On a button, on a patch, on clothing, in fireworks, on a parade float, in bunting hung all around town, in every advertisement, on every TV commercial. I wonder if people born after the bicentennial are really able to appreciate how the entire United States seemed to be obsessed with displays of patriotism.
Especially since for the rest of my life since then, patriotism has been decidedly out of fashion. For about as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been living in Northern California, I’ve been surrounded by people rejecting Independence Day — if not the entire notion of America — as simple-minded jingoism at best, a cruel lie at worst. This year in particular, I’ve seen so many comments saying that the 4th is nothing to celebrate, America is a failure and an embarrassment, we’re all doomed, etc, that I’d almost think I’d woken up in Iran.
But you know, fair enough. The USA is in a sorry state right now, what with a bunch of people giving the office of President to one of the worst people on the planet, and then spending years letting that racist moron and his moronic followers all set the tone of our national conversations to the point where we act like we actually have to defend the most basic of truths and our most basic decency. On top of that, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve spent the last few years wishing we could have Obama back to fix everything, having to come to terms with the fact that they’ve spent a couple of hundred years hitting the snooze button on meaningfully addressing the country’s history of systemic racism. It seems like a bad time to be shouting that America is a perfect shining beacon of liberty.
And really, there are few things as quintessentially American as saying “America sucks.” Dissatisfaction and revolution are what started the USA in the first place, after all. The part that seems to be a more recent development — at least “recent” in terms of my own lifetime — is the desire to just shrug and let it lie there. To interpret it as “America sucks, because America has always sucked,” instead of “America sucks right now, but we can be so much better.”
When I was a teenager, at the start of the Reagan era, a bunch of opportunists decided to waste everybody’s time for a couple of decades by inventing a twisted bizarro version of America and insisting that it was the proper one. One of the most prominent sentiments from that was “Love it or leave it!” which is, obviously, anti-American by definition — the entire philosophy of America is the idea “Love it or change it.” But for some reason, back when hypocrites like the “Moral Majority” and trash like Newt Gingrich declared that they were the true keepers of the American Ideal, everybody just kind of shrugged and rolled their eyes. We let a bunch of fools and garbage people decide what it means to be “American” in the public consciousness. Instead of just rejecting them, we decided to reject the whole notion of American patriotism. Maybe since it was the late 80s and early 90s, we felt like it was more fun to mock people than actually making an effort to stand up for something?
Whatever the reason, it’s left us at what I pray is the final death rattle of the Reagan era, surrounded by people who’ve taken that cartoonish version of American exceptionalism to its grossest extreme. It would be pitiful, seeing Sarah Palin or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or Donald Trump struggling to form coherent sentences out of the last 40 years worth of insipid GOP catch-phrases to defend things like systemic racism, police brutality, or the violent murder of school children. But I feel no sympathy for them, since they chose to reject the light, and they each deserve whatever is coming to them. The people that I do worry about, and I do sympathize with, are the well-intentioned people who let these hollow, evil, shells of human beings set the terms of what they stand for and what they stand against.
When I was writing about Splash Mountain and growing up in Georgia, I talked about the false version of “the South” that everyone grew up just taking for granted. I don’t think I sufficiently described why it made me so sad, though. It’s a feeling of being unmoored, as if having my history taken from me. Knowing that it was a false history doesn’t help that much. So I can easily sympathize with the people who feel a bit of panic at seeing Confederate statues being taken down, even if they know intellectually that that panic makes no sense. In my case, part of it comes from remembering how I consciously tried to get rid of my southern accent, because I didn’t want to be associated with the popular conception of southerners as under-educated, racist, rednecks. Now I don’t sound — or feel — like I come from anywhere in particular. Instead of just rejecting all the things that white supremacists and anti-intellectuals stand for, I let them co-opt “the South” and let them decide what it is to be from there. I thought I was rejecting them, when I was actually just giving up and letting them steal my home from me.
Obviously, I don’t have any patience or sympathy for the type of people who yell that America is the greatest country in the world while refusing to take any actual responsibility for living up to its ideals and making it great. But at the same time, I don’t have any patience for the people who just want to mope and declare “America’s not worth celebrating this year” and then leave it at that. I mean, protest all you want, but at the same time: bitch, get over yourself. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with America this year was wrong last year and the 200+ years before that. Just because you’re only just now finding out about the evils of capitalism doesn’t mean you get to lecture the rest of us who want to eat a hot dog and watch fireworks. Great people living in America have spent centuries accomplishing amazing things in spite of the systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice towards native people. It’s astoundingly shitty — not to mention disrespectful to the people who’ve worked hard to make things better — to just throw up your hands and cede the country to a bunch of racist assholes. Especially since the only way those assholes seem to be “winning” is because they found a way to exploit our own apathy and complacency.
And for that matter: it’s been disappointing to see grown-ass adults throwing tantrums when their preferred presidential candidate didn’t get the nomination. I was extremely disappointed when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, but there’s one thing I noticed: she got over it. And she got right back to work. A lot of people seem to think that the political process ends with the election of a President, which makes me wonder if a lot of people were paying attention in middle school Civics class. There’s this idea that we’re entitled to a President that satisfies every one of our demands, and that the process of finding one person to represent the needs of over 300 million people shouldn’t require compromise. That’s not just unrealistic; it’s downright stupid. Electing a President is the start of the process, not the end. They set the course for the administration, but it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to make things better for everyone.
I really like the phrase “a more perfect Union.” Taken out of context, it implies a relentless pursuit of self-improvement: no matter how perfect things seem now, they can always be more perfect. I know that the 4th is ostensibly to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but I’ve always been more a fan of the Constitution, anyway. Besides, stating definitively what you intend to do, and then spending a decade figuring out a plan to actually achieve it is another one of those things that feels quintessentially American. And that’s not some lazily cynical criticism, either; it’s praise. America is more than just a declaration or a list of ideals; it’s an ongoing process.
Maybe it’s the fault of the historians who insist on referring to America as a “grand experiment.” The intention was to remind us that the liberties we enjoy aren’t guaranteed, and that they’re by no means permanent or protected from collapse. But calling it an “experiment” implies a passivity that’s deadly for a democracy. It implies that we should wait and see what happens, instead of working to make it happen ourselves.
I’ve seen the suggestion that the Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie, because it claims that all men are created equal, but was written and signed by slave owners and rapists, for the purpose of keeping for themselves land that had been stolen from Native Americans. But I don’t see what we accomplish by rejecting the idea as a lie or a failure, instead of seeing it as an aspirational ideal that we’re still, over two centuries later, working to achieve. It’s better to learn from history instead of just assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review to it. And it’s no more accurate to ignore all the positive things a human accomplished than it is to ignore the negatives and present them as flawless paragons of humanity. You might as well say that Benjamin Franklin made all his contributions via a friendly mouse.
I’ve also seen the suggestion that rejecting the American right wing’s version of American exceptionalism requires us to admit that America isn’t at all exceptional. After all, there are plenty of other democracies around the world, plenty of strong economies, plenty of countries that promise the blessings of liberty to their citizens, and plenty of countries with a higher standard of living than ours. All of that’s true, but there is one thing that makes the USA exceptional, and that’s part of what we celebrate on the 4th of July. America is the only nation I can think of that is defined by its ideals instead of by its geography or by its ethnicity. That’s pretty remarkable, because it means that none of us are just working off a vague feeling of what the country means to us; we’ve got an actual template that we should be working towards. One of those ideals is that we’re a nation of immigrants. So if some asshole tries to run for President on a platform of fearing, persecuting, and driving away immigrants, we should all have enough damn sense to recognize that as inherently un-American.
And it means that they’re ideals that we shouldn’t dismiss as nothing more than an accident of our birth. When I see someone going on Facebook and saying that “they’re not feeling the fourth of July this year,” I think about the hundreds of people who’ve subjected themselves to cruelty and indignity to give their families the chance at the life that could be so carelessly taken for granted by someone else. And when we call for social justice, we’re not calling for constant struggle, but for a world in which no one has to struggle for the same things that we take for granted. And where we don’t have to see someone being murdered by the police turned into just another one of your callously insipid memes.
So if I’m this grumpy and sick of seeing such performative cynicism playing out throughout the country, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who’ve worked so much harder than I have to make the USA a place that lives up to its ideals. I imagine it requires a level of sympathy that I lack. I so often find myself saying, “If you really don’t have the hope that we can improve, then why are you still inserting yourself into the conversation? Step aside, shut the hell up, and make room for the people who actually want to make a difference.”
We need to have an America that’s defined by the best of its people instead of the worst. We need to acknowledge that optimism and positivity may be corny, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less realistic or inauthentic than relentless negativity. We need to stop dismissing the aspiration to improve ourselves as being a worthless endeavor simply because we haven’t achieved it yet.
America is joining a gym membership on January 1st, even while people tell you that you’ll just give up and it’s a waste of money. America is buying an acoustic guitar and pledging to learn how to play it, even though you’ve got an assortment of musical instruments lying around the house that you were never able to learn. America is trying to learn a second language just for the sake of learning it, even though people tell you it’s too hard. America is always working to become the most perfect version of yourself, rejecting anyone who tries to control you via fear or via misplaced nostalgia, but also rejecting anyone who tries to ruin you with despair.
I hope that this year brings change, and next year is one that we can all feel less conflicted about celebrating. But we can’t just fall back into our old patterns of complacency, looking for quick fixes from the government, or easy-to-identify villains to whom we can administer the sickest of burns and most devastating owns, as a substitute for actual civic engagement. Any of us who are embarrassed to be American need to snap out of it and recognize it’s our responsibility to make America a place where intelligence, integrity, decency, and mutual respect are honored. It’s up to us to define what America is, and we shouldn’t trust the definition to a bunch of idiots and self-interested maniacs. It’s up to us to appreciate dissent and uncertainty and realize that it’s all part of the effort to turn America into the place it’s always aspired to be.