Photo from Library of Congress
Jul 05, 2023
Full disclosure: Many of us were pretty cranky on white America’s birthday this year, a cheerless event given recent wrongs and losses - Dobbs, guns, book bans, trans attacks, Moms For Hitler, felons for president, the insidious erasing of the rights of many by an evil few in a nation founded on the lofty notion of equality for all. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," declared a sanguine Thomas Paine. Hope against hope: maybe. But right now, not feeling it.
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence proclaiming, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Begun in revolt against colonialism in general and British empire in particular - "O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!” - Paine's America rejected the idea that anyone could claim the hereditary right to rule others. “Where (is) the King of America?” he asked in his seminal, 48-page Common Sense. "In America, THE LAW IS KING." Hailing the historic chance to form "the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth," Paine insisted on equality, independence and democratic self-governance for all: "The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion." He had high hopes that America's revolutionary rejection of British autocracy, founded on a radical declaration by "a group of upstart legislators on the edges of a continent" that no person was born better than another, would ultimately inspire rebellions in a world "overrun with oppression - freedom hath been hunted round the globe.”
And it did, to a point. Historians estimate over half of the U.N.'s current 193 countries used the Declaration as a template for establishing democracies of varying effectiveness. Still, change comes hard, especially amidst deep-seated prejudices and the timeless lust for unquestioned power. On July 4, 1821, as the new nation began to lean into imperialism, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, eventually our 6th president, appeared before Congress to urge a foreign policy that "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Warning against "paying the unaffordable wages of empire," Adams said America should speak “the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights” - but only her own. "She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all," he said. "Her glory is not dominion, but liberty.” As to our vaunted promise of "equal protection" under law in the name of the "general welfare," Black people in America initially celebrated the Fourth in hopes it meant their freedom. But by the disillusioned 1830s, many marked a July 5 "Independence Day" as a form of protest; in 1838, one black newspaper suggested on July 4th the flag feature a slave ship, not the Stars and Stripes, and another called it “the bleakest day of the year."
And so it goes. This year's ostensible holiday - hot dogs! parades! potentially lethal fireworks! - sees many of the Founding Fathers' ideals at greater risk than perhaps ever before, with millions of often vulnerable Americans losing or threatened with losing fundamental rights that other, richer, whiter, straighter people - corrupt, extremist, theocratic hacks of the Supreme Court and complicit GOP state legislatures, thank you! - still enjoy. Cue the Dobbs decision, plus at least 14 states to date banning abortion; the trashing of affirmative action; the flagrant gerrymandering and disenfranchisement in key states; the newly declared right to discriminate against queer couples based on what turns out bea non-existent case; harassing and restricting/banning health care for trans people, the right's incomprehensible new boogeyman; banning books, closing libraries, denying slavery and black stories and all today's other lunatic, hateful, fearful, don't-say-gay-or-drag witch-hunts in this once land-of-the-free-and-reasonable-discourse nation. But not to worry: Despite Adams' fervent pleas for "responsible statecraft," our longtime practice of waging perpetual war, born of greed and "patterns of convenient silence," is still going strong. So is the heedless nationalism - with its flags, songs, pledges and what Howard Zinn called its insistence "God must single out America to be blessed" - that feeds it.
Meanwhile, the planet is burning up: Scientists say July 4 may have been the hottest day on Earth in 125,000 years, a "totally unprecedented and terrifying" global milestone that could be "a death sentence for people and ecosystems." The country is awash in bloodshed: Gun violence over the "holiday" weekend claimed at least 15 lives - in Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Chicago, Baltimore, D.C., Tampa, where a 7-year-old was killed in a squabble over jet skis - and wounded over 30; still, GOP patriots continue to block gun reform, because WTF of course they do. They did, however, wish us a Happy 4th with an image of the flag of Liberia, an African country founded for freed American slaves, prompting wisecracks like, "You'd think they'd recognize the flag they beat cops with" and the GOP's "moved beyond racism and gone straight to deportation." Equally memorable was a July 4th post from Josh Hawley attributing to Patrick Henry a quote "this great nation was founded (on) the Gospel of Jesus Christ" when in fact it was from the anti-Semitic, white nationalist "The Virginian"; it inspired, "Everybody knows Jesus was a Founding Father - he signed the Declaration of Independence (but) in invisible ink to not draw attention to himself" and "I always thought it was so cool how Jesus (likely Norwegian) wrote the Bible in American 2,000 years before there was an America."
Clearly the leader of this alternate reality remains the twice-impeached, twice-indicted, liable-for-sexual-assault low-life inexplicably free to turn up in Pickens, S.C. for a flag-drenched rally that drew 50,000 fans eager to wait in line overnight, pay for $100 parking, faint in the heat, praise him "because he tells the truth," urge on his first glad day back in office he destroy the deep state and "take 'em to the train station," hear him insult much-booed hometown boy Lindsay Graham, and cheer as he declaimed, "It's hardworking patriots like you who are going to save our country” from "sick people" and "degenerates." In line, many got flyers from the white supremacist National Justice Party, which seeks "self-determination for White Americans," wants America declared "an outpost of Western civilization," demands a 2% ceiling on Jews working in "vital institutions," rejects "transgender propaganda" in schools, and argues people should be policed and educated "by persons of their own race." Trump also welcomed Hitler-quoting Moms For Liberty, newly named a hate group, as "the best thing that's ever happened to America" for their galeclratiolant, fascist-funded moves to erase slavery from history and queers from existence. Predictably, GOP candidates flocked to their "Joyful Warriors" July 4th convention, lauding them as strong "Mama bears." Many have proffered other names: Assholes With Casseroles, Ku Klux Karens, Crackpots With Crockpots, Bitches for Bigotry.
All in all, then, a melancholy 4th. Charlie Pierce admitted he was "not in the mood for life, liberty and all that"; while he usually posts the majestic opening of the Declaration of Independence, he wrote, "Today, I'm reading words in another language, rote, without a proper translation." With a once-cherished right to "life" met with gun carnage, "liberty" "twisted beyond all reckoning" and "the pursuit of happiness" corroded for too many by a rising intolerance oozing into fascism, he laments of a fearsome founding document, "Our commitment to the full measure of its promise never has been weaker." This 4th, he reports, he felt "a general, dull ache in the soul." Still, we do what we can. "It's what living things do," says Prior Walter in Tony Kushner's searing Angels In America, set during the AIDS epidemic, where a black character lashes out at an America that is "terminal, crazy and mean." People nonetheless persevere, seeking peace "where love and justice finally meet." The play ends with Prior, sick but not hopeless, looking forward. "More Life," he says. "The Great Work Begins." On July 5, 1852, the fiery Frederick Douglass declared, "This 4th of July is yours, not mine." He summoned a racial reckoning that's somehow not arrived, but we can hope. "It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder," he said. "We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake."
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