Happy Independence Day, Whatever That Means
So it’s July 4th again, our nation’s birthday. A day for dressing up in tail coats, breeches, stockings, wigs and tri-corner hats and screeching about how the founders would have totally given BP a free pass to do as they please, no backsies, if you’re of a certain persuasion; a day for drinking beer, cooking on the grill, and setting off illegal fireworks if you’re most of us. The point being that “independence day” means different things to different people, just as the words “freedom” and “liberty” and “patriotism” do.
Results of a survey released just this week showed that 26% of Americans surveyed didn’t know exactly who it was that we declared independence from way back in 1776. Among the responses: France, Spain, Mexico, Japan, and China. Which brings to mind the rhetorical question asked by the Jules character in Pulp Fiction, played by Samuel L. Jackson: “English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?” It seems that anyone who can answer that question should have an inkling as to which country was our parent nation. I’m tempted to think that the 26% who answered “don’t know” or named one of these other nations were just fucking with the pollsters; then I’m reminded that George W. Bush left office with a 28% approval rating, a similar number believe our president was born in Kenya because “someone on the internet said so”, and a not-insignificant portion of the population believes that humans and dinosaurs co-existed on the earth at the same time and The Flintstones was a documentary. The sad fact is that something between 1/4 and 1/3 of our population are the hard-core stupid/insane, which continually depresses me though it shouldn’t, since the inescapable mathematical fact is that one half of all people are of below-average intelligence.
Besides, I feel I should give a little credit to the folks who responded with “China”, particularly if they are young – how are they supposed to know that we weren’t always owned by the Chinese?
But back to the topic at hand: “freedom,” “liberty,” and “patriotism” – what do they mean? IMHO, these words have been so shamelessly co-opted to mean “shut up, that’s why!” that for many of us, they have very little meaning at all. For all the saccharine sentiment behind America’s Redneck National Anthem:
…it’s essentially a song completely empty of meaning. I mean, the guy’s “proud to be an American” because “at least I know I’m free.” But “free” from what? Soviet-style repression? We’re not alone in being “free” from that. At the same time, we’re notably less free from corporate predation and economic security than the citizens of many of those faggy elitist “socialist” European democracies. Then there’s the line about how he “won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.” Well, I haven’t forgotten the brave men of the Revolution, or 1812, or the Civil War, or WWII either, but let’s face it: many more men have died in service to this country’s imperialism than have because of any existential threat we faced. I do not denigrate their service; when they were called to duty, they answered the call – but those making the call have all too often had less-than-pure motives. Pretending otherwise doesn’t make you a better or more patriotic American; it makes you a more dangerous one, more likely to go along with wasting other men’s lives needlessly.
And then there’s that whole concept of “freedom”, which more and more these days I’m thinking comports most closely with the meaning assigned it by Kris Kristofferson, as famously sung by Janis Joplin:
…”freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Because, let’s face it, we’ve lost a lot over these past 50 years. The concepts of fair play, of fair pay for an honest day’s work, of protecting the little guy against the abuses of corporate giants. The people of this country, even those who show up in Revolutionary-style drag to protest against protections for themselves, have lost an awful lot during my lifetime, and there’s no sign that the tide has turned or will turn on that any time soon.
Which brings us to the concept of “patriotism,” which I believe is the crux of the issue here.
There are a lot of people running around in this country who believe that Lee Greenwood’s blather about God blessing the USA sending a shiver down their spine, singing the national anthem loudly, screaming out the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, or slapping a flag on their car antenna proves they’re “patriots”. It’s all about the symbols for them. But symbols do not a nation make; nations are made up of people united in a common cause or destiny. “Patriotism” has nothing to do with attachment to a particular piece of real estate or a fetish for a flag or other symbol, and everything to do with caring about your fellow citizens. If they aren’t strong and healthy, then neither is the nation. You’d think that the Lee Greenwood lovers would know this; the church-going folk have no excuse for not being aware of this concept of “nation” because as their Bible makes quite clear, the nation of Israel was comprised of the people, not the land they lived on. They remained the “nation of Israel” through bondage in Egypt, through the Babylonian conquest, through Roman domination and through the diaspora. That’s what a nation is – a connection to a group of people, not fealty to a scrap of cloth of a certain design or a patch of land.
And that’s what we’ve lost, if indeed we ever had it. Those who most loudly proclaim their “patriotism” these days are those who are also most likely to bitch and moan about how it’s unfair that their fellow citizens should enjoy the same rights and privileges they enjoy, about how their “freedom” is being encroached upon when they are asked to pay their fair share of what it costs to live in a civilized society, about how in a truly “free” nation it would be every man for himself – never seeing the contradiction inherent in that belief, that there is no need for a “nation” if we adopt the mantra of every man for himself. It’s what defines Sarah Palin, Our Lady of Perpetual Butthurt, as an anti-patriot, every time she opens her mouth and a whole lot of stupid about the “real America” falls out.
Lincoln famously noted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” That holds as true today as it did in his time, as it has in all times. You cannot simultaneously “love your nation” while hating most of the people who comprise it. Over these past 20 or 30 years, we have as a nation been increasingly encouraged by those who lay claim to “leadership” to hate one another over differences of race, religion, and political viewpoint. Those who have encouraged this schism have all too often wrapped themselves in the flag and proclaimed that their view is the patriotic one – which means by definition, any who disagree are unpatriotic. I would submit that, like all others, they have an agenda – but that agenda is not “what’s best for the nation,” because no one who wants what’s best for the nation would seek to turn citizen against citizen over these types of differences. That way leads to nothing but hatred and strife and ultimately, dissolution of the nation itself. It is the exact opposite of patriotism or love of nation.
You cannot be a “patriot” while hating your fellow citizens.
So however you choose to enjoy this Independence Day, whether it be in colonial drag whilst waving a placard proclaiming that our president is a Hitler-Stalin usurper, or whether it be on the back patio grilling for family and friends, I wish you a happy one, and for those who need it, a deeper understanding of what it means to “love your country.” Take a day off from the butthurt and ponder on what it really means to be a part of a nation. You can get back to hating everyone in it tomorrow.