By lex, On July 5, 2005
I felt like I was obligated to write something patriotic yesterday, like somehow I owed it to someone. But I guess being on leave put me out of sorts for obligations, even of the self-imposed kind. And a quick wave of the flag, some thoughtless gesture of patriotism, didn’t seem right to me either, although I don’t condemn how others deigned to celebrate the holiday.
The 4th of July has always seemed to me too much of a holiday except at those times when it is too little.
Most the time it seems too much: As an annual connection to mythic and halcyon times of yore, our own chance to act out a Norman Rockwell painting in a barbecue with family and friends, and a demarcation line for mid-summer it is sufficient I suppose. And there are the fireworks of course, which are always fine, but which one suspects were more impressive in rural Iowa back before George Lucas built Industrial Light and Magic than they are today on either coast. CGI is a hard act to follow.
For me, it is too much of a holiday for unreflective self-satisfaction. Too much for an excuse to barbecue and burn. Too much for light shows, and oohs and ahhs.
But somehow not enough when men and women are dying overseas for the flag we hang out for a day, then roll up and put away until next year.
Because I’m often left to wonder if we still “get it.” If we really understand what our Founders knew to be true when they scratched their names to that parchment 229 years ago – the most prominent men of their states and times, men of property and means and with a great deal to lose compared to most of their ambivalent countrymen: They had in fact just collectively signed their own death warrant. With numbers in the polity that should somehow surprise no one today: One third for them, one third against, one third undecided, they did in fact pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the truly revolutionary idea that governments ought to answer to the people, and that the contract between the people and the government is revocable, based on the government’s performance of its duties to the people. No other people said this – they were all, the rest of them, “subjects” of their crowns.
They based that revolutionary precept of governmental responsibility upon another, one they claimed boldly to be “self-evident,” although in truth their experience had to have proven otherwise: That all men were created equal. And building as much a logical argument for separation as anything else, since it was also self-evidently true then as now that not all men are equal in every way, they further went on to say that equality was in the eyes of the only judge that mattered: As children of Nature’s God, all mankind was endowed by the Creator with certain “inalienable” rights. Rights inclusive of, but not limited to; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This was a bold stroke of revolutionary thinking, one which went strongly against the established order and one which a “divine right” king must needs suppress, striking as it did directly against his own source of legitimacy. It was a concept tending, as Cornwallis’ band would eventually note in 1781, to turn the world upside-down. Something a tyrant would have to fight even if it hadn’t meant losing the American continent, and a snatching of the most precious jewel from the imperial crown of England.
Do we still understand that over the course of the next six years the continental army, outmatched and outgunned by the imperial power, lost in battle time and time again? Do we recall that their only real victory before the stunning surprise at the very end was the fact that they refused, although defeated, to be destroyed?
There would be so much more to go through for those plucky revolutionaries and their descendants: Not until 1783 would Congress recognize that war was over. Not until 1789 would the states ratify the Constitution, and enable our forefathers to attempt to fashion “a more nearly perfect union,” a work, it must be admitted, which is still in progress. There would still be the ritual bloodbath of purification from our own Original Sin in our American Civil War. There would be our uncertain entrance as a reluctant actor upon the world stage, leveraging off the natural gifts or our continent combined with the spirit of hard-won success born from hard work, and that only after all the other great powers had brutalized themselves into almost senseless passivity. There would be the costly reconstruction of a devastated continent, and all the long, dark watches of a long, Cold War. And yes, there would be crimes against indigenous peoples, and iniquities in race and gender, and many more times when we fell very far short of our ideals, but there would also have been a time when those blemishes in our past gave context to the greater arc of our history rather than substituting for it.
And so I wonder if we still “get it.”
But we went to the beach and did the barbecue, because that is what you do. And in a less formal way, we talked about these things in our own circle of family, because that is what I do, and the children at least tolerate this in me, with varying degrees of grace. And leaving the beach we sought the high grounds above Del Mar to watch the fireworks from the fairgrounds, and found ourselves there surrounded by many of our neighbors, and many people of different backgrounds and tongues who all of them watched the fireworks with that gleam in their eyes, the continuing child-like delight. And while watching the show and the people with a certain degree of detachment, a kind of duality within me sees two separate visions in the same manifestation: I see the continuity of our national adventure, our national experiment, re-celebrated through the grown up eyes of a child, from out of the mists of my faded youth. But I see through the eyes of a veteran and compare the show to the shattered, but still-lethal lances of anti-aircraft artillery, arcing through night skies. And while both of these visions are somehow incompatible, the eyes of innocence versus the eyes of experience, somehow they are both also true. Because the fireworks represent our national continuity, but they also represent the “rockets red glare” attacking the homeland as seen from the deck of a hostile warship.
And like I do every year, I try, and mostly fail, to articulate this to my patient and long-suffering clan. To try to ensure that we still “get it.”
Whatever “it” is.