Some reflections on the fifth of July
Last night, as people in our neighborhood were setting off fireworks, our dogs stuck to me. They didn’t bark or whine, but they stayed close by me as I moved around the apartment getting ready for bed. They were underfoot as I brushed my teeth and tried to close the blinds at the same time. They followed me into the kitchen and watched closely as I cleared space in the refrigerator for the big pot of chili I’d cooked in the afternoon. They both huddled in bed with me when Emma and I turned out the light. They don’t typically do this, but fireworks are scary for dogs. Emma took the opportunity to come over in bed with me, too. The four of us barely fit on my twin-sized mattress on the floor. Emma had a headache, so she couldn’t draw on her art tablet like she usually does into the early morning hours. We share a bedroom now that we’ve moved out of the house; each of us has a twin mattress on the floor in opposite corners of the room. It’s a good thing we like each other. I was sleepy (I usually go to bed early and get up early), but she was wide awake, and the fireworks were continuing in the distance. None of them seemed particularly close by except for the first one that had sent the dogs directly to my ankles. It sounded a bit like gunshots, and I told Emma the story about spending the Fourth of July at the fireworks in Boston Harbor with a man from Sarajevo who was deeply unsettled by them because the sound reminded him of the war that was ravaging his city. I never thought about fireworks the same way again. Emma hasn’t had the experience I had as a child of going down to Memorial Field in the early evening to spread a blanket and wait for the sun to set and the fireworks to begin. I looked forward to those fireworks displays, though I covered my ears. I’ve never liked the noise. We don’t seem to have municipal fireworks around here, I suspect because the city can’t afford them, like it can’t afford school buses. The fireworks displays are all privatized in this area. Our first summer in Carlsbad, we heard that you could watch the Legoland fireworks from the grounds of Kelly Elementary School, so we took a couple of folding chairs down there and got eaten alive by mosquitoes while the lights flashed in the distance. Not the best time ever, and we were never doing that again. One summer, when we had Legoland annual passes, we saw the fireworks from Legoland itself, and they were a bit more impressive up close. Another year, we went to a friend of a friend’s house and walked up a hill to see three or four different fireworks displays going on while the kids played on a dirtbike path and completely ignored the flickering sky. One of the displays was at a local country club, the other at Legoland, and a third was in Oceanside, which could still afford to have fireworks. Another display in the distance may have been in Bonsall or Fallbrook. Most of the time, though, we’ve been travelling in July. This is our first summer without a summer vacation since Emma was two and I took her to a conference in the Netherlands and then to meet friends in Denmark and family in Switzerland. Last summer, we were in Japan on the 4th. The summer before that, Iceland, on our way to Switzerland. During the summer of 2016, we were in Australia for a month to celebrate her 10th birthday and my 50th. Much of our summer travel has been within the US. Once we were in Hawaii and could see the fireworks over Kailua Harbor from our hotel room. Another year, we went to visit my uncle and cousins in Kentucky for a very hot, humid Fourth of July weekend, and we watched the Lexington fireworks from the street near my cousins’ house. So we don’t have a consistent Fourth of July tradition like a lot of American families seem to. As we went for our evening walk around the neighborhood, we could smell grill cooking and hear backyard parties going on. The local park that we walk around was empty for a change; usually there have been baseball and soccer games going on, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d read about large crowds at the beaches, too. Honestly, my inclination right now is to avoid crowds, and pretty much to avoid people. Emma and I are trying to stay COVID-19 negative, because we are still hoping to be able to go to Mongolia when it opens up again. Also, we don’t want to get this if we can help it, because it just sounds bad. It is not a “little flu” as some right-wing populist leaders have claimed. It is one scary-ass disease that everyone should want to avoid. The fact that they don’t, or at least don’t act that way, is baffling. It’s also infuriating, since it’s drawing this crisis out a lot longer. So, as we lay in bed talking and waiting for the neighborhood to quiet down, we talked about why we are both ambivalent about the Fourth of July and what it commemorates. I pointed out that Emma is probably ambivalent because I am, but she said that even as she was learning American history this past year at school, she had a hard time with it. We talked a lot about the genocide of Native Americans and forced labor of people kidnapped from Africa, and how it’s not that “all men” are created equal, but “all white men with property.” Everyone else was pretty much shafted. One year our bedtime reading was Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States, though we didn’t make it all the way through. (We didn’t make it all the way through the Harry Potter series, either, so it wasn’t necessarily the subject matter.) I read her enough for her to know that a lot of what passes for history here ignores a lot of what happened. We talked about how we are finding it difficult to be excited about, much less proud of, the US right now. We have catastrophic leadership. I am sick to death of a president who lies constantly, and of people who don’t object to being lied to. The Republican Party seems only interested in hanging onto power, no matter the cost. They have been squandering our future survival for corporate profits, and we seem to be having a hard time stopping them. And the Democrats, when they are not also profiting from the same sources, are pretending as if the United States is still a democracy, essentially turning their backs on the hostile takeover that’s been underway since Ronald Reagan and his neoliberal backers declared war on American society in 1980. There’s not a lot to feel good about in the US these days. Except that if you think about it more, there is. Emma and I got to talking about what there is to feel good about. Some people do fight back. We talked about the Indigenous water protectors who are using their bodies as well as the courts to fight the tar sands pipelines that would ruin the country’s water supplies and farmland. And the others who are helping them, like the farming couple in Nebraska who gave their land to the Ponca in order to protect it from the Keystone XL pipeline. We talked about people who are fighting to do something about climate change, using a wide variety of means, especially the efforts young people have been making through the Sunrise Movement and the school strikes for climate. We also talked about the recent progress with the Black Lives Matter movement, and how people’s views on racial discrimination and police violence are slowly shifting. How amazing it’s been to see everything from thousands of people marching in the streets of the world’s cities to the handful of white youth holding BLM signs on our local street corner. It seems likely that her generation will be much more politicized than prior generations, though they are also suffering from the massive defunding of education that’s been going on in the US for the last few decades. But we also talked about how the things we feel good about aren’t uniquely American, and we shouldn’t celebrate them as such. There are people everywhere who care about human rights, environmental protection, and climate justice. These are “our people,” and national boundaries won’t interfere with our fellow-feeling of connection to them. And this is the reason why I have a hard time getting excited about the Fourth of July. In the US, people accept the myth that we created democracy, though our own democracy was modeled after not only other Western examples but the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, which is the oldest living participatory democracy. But myth alone is not enough to sustain actual democracy, and there are many clear signs that US democracy is coming to an end if we don’t actively maintain it. The COVID-19 crisis will likely accelerate its demise, as many people seem to be opting for short-term pleasure over reducing the spread and impact of the virus. It’s ironic that calls for “freedom” serve our emergent fascist state and this anti-democratic transition in what is starting to feel like a botched social experiment instead of an actual country. I hope to be proven wrong as we look back on this time from some point in the future, but the current administration and this virus are showing us how fragile our social institutions really are. That, perhaps, is an American phenomenon, though the same pattern seems to be playing out in other countries like Brazil and India. Some democratic norms still hold. I can write this without feeling worried about official reprisal from the government. I’m more concerned about people who profess their love of freedom while at the same time (and without irony ?!?) try to shut down open discussion by threatening those they disagree with. People face death threats for writing about climate change, environmental protection, and human rights. People face death threats for encouraging the public to take precautions against COVID-19. Public health officials—the very people we need to survive this crisis—are being forced out of office by harassment campaigns. These are the times we are living in. The Declaration of Independence, which the Fourth of July purportedly celebrates, stresses the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” though currently the first one seems to get less emphasis. The second amendment in the Bill of Rights, the right to own guns, is deemed more important than the rest. The phrase “It’s a free country” is used to justify all sorts of abuses that impinge on the freedom of others; this is something Emma and I have talked about since she first encountered the expression in preschool. It expresses a “freedom to” rather than “freedom from”: Freedom to say and do whatever one wants, as opposed to helping ensure that everyone is free from oppression and injustice. Indeed, “freedom from fear and want” is a less famous part of the Declaration of Independence, but no less important. Right now, individual liberty is perceived as more important than a just society (or a healthy one); indeed, many of the loudest proponents of liberty ignore the dependence of their freedom on justice. Of course, not everyone feels that way. In fact, many people don’t. But right now the ones that do seem louder than the rest of us, more willing to scream in the face of public officials, to threaten the health and lives of others. They show up with guns and spit in people’s faces, while those who are struggling for genuine freedoms, especially the freedom from death by police, are told by these same people to be quiet and go home. So it’s difficult to feel the sort of unqualified love of country that the Fourth of July seems to bring out in many people. Looking through some past writing, I found this. I wrote it on July 4, 2017, and it expresses quite well the sentiments I have about this day and this country even now: “Because of the dogs, I spent my 4th of July evening at home. I’ve never been big on this holiday, anyway—I’m not much of a patriot. I think I’ve lived in enough other countries to feel like the US is not particularly special or unique, and I’ve never really understood patriotism. Too much has happened during my life for me to feel like we are a benevolent force in the world, and I’ve seen first-hand too many of the effects of our actions in the world (and the milder ones. at that!). I don’t “love” the US any more than the other countries I’ve lived in, and every country feels like home to me when I’m living there. “I was scrolling through my photos from spring and the first bit of summer, finally, and one memory card contained pictures from four national parks: Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. This is as close to loving this country (among many others) as I’ll get. As destructive as the national park system has been in its implementation (forcing people off their land, for instance), and despite the way they conflate nature with nationalism in the stories that they tell, not to mention the problematic ways they construct nature for their visitors, our national parks and other protected lands contain a tremendous amount of beauty, and they make it easier for more people to visit incredibly beautiful places. They are starting to tell stories that allow visitors to understand and reflect on the contradictions of park creation (though many of the stories they tell continue to erase history, so it’s a gradual transition). I realize that my reaction to the parks is shaped by a particular cultural and historical background (my parents were “nature-lovers” and I inherited that), and that it is elitist, but visiting these treasured places of my own childhood with my daughter–and talking to her about their contradictions–has been one of the highlights of our life in California. So that’s one of the things I was thinking about on the 4th of July.” Three years later, it’s what I still think about.
2 thoughts on “Some reflections on the fifth of July”
So much to admire here, but these especially stand out: “Right now, individual liberty is perceived as more important than a just society (or a healthy one) . . .” AND “Freedom to say and do whatever one wants, as opposed to helping ensure that everyone is free from oppression and injustice” Also, love your love for the parks!
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Thank you for commenting, Monica! I appreciate your thoughts. Yes, I feel like the prevalent notion of freedom misses the mark.