“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
-Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852
For many Americans, July 4th is a momentous occasion, their favorite holiday. For many others however, it is a difficult day of balancing the grand notions of America with the reality of America. De jure segregation, racism, sexism and homophobia no longer exist, but de facto segregation, racism, sexism and homophobia thrive, along with a legal war against the poor. What exactly should we celebrate? Independence and sovereignty as a nation provide life chances for some, but certainly not all. As such, when the former slave Frederick Douglass was asked to speak about Independence Day in 1852, the irony was not lost on him.
Independence Day did not become a federal holiday until 1870, and it wasn’t a paid federal holiday until 1938. The timing is not random; this move to instill patriotism in the citizenry arose as our nation was grappling with slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Likewise, the impacts of WWI, the Committee on Public Information created by Woodrow Wilson, and our increasing involvement in foreign affairs throughout Europe, coalesced to present a sterilized and mythical version of America and our dealings abroad.
Since then, it has grown into its own beast: the shops and avenues of Jacksonville seem to have regurgitated red, white and blue flags, banners, signs and the like. The US Flag Code is federal law, and though it is rarely enforced, it states in part that "the Flag should never be used for advertising in any manner. It should not be reproduced on napkins, bags or anything else that will be discarded. No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume, clothing item or athletic uniform."
Living here in Jacksonville beach, I have seen innumerable people wearing flag bathing suits, shorts, tops, etc. No doubt these people feel they are expressing their patriotism, but technically they are violating the US Flag Code and desecrating the flag. During the Vietnam War, protesters risked being attacked for dressing this exact way and were seen as disrespecting the flag and country. The meanings that people attach to these symbols are often politically driven and affect our definition of patriotism.
This hyper-focus on nationalism, the love of our nation and all the symbols associated with it, ignoring its flaws, precludes an honest examination of our independence and our history. The “my country, right or wrong” sentiment engenders the view that our country is somehow special or morally superior to other nations, and to suggest otherwise brands one ‘unpatriotic’. We have millions of people out of work, millions more with little to no health care, and systemic discrimination across multiple stratification systems. To address these issues, we need the freedom to question the way our country works, and to shed the lifelong indoctrination that tells us “America #1!”
According to a New York Times video (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/01/opinion/america-great.html), America is the richest country of the Western democracies, and we are also the poorest. We lead the world in military spending, civilian gun ownership, mass shootings, prescription drug abuse, prison population (per capita and gross), while our high-schoolers are ranked 19th in the world in science, 20th in reading, and 30th in math.
How do we make significant social change to improve the lives of many-to-most Americans if we fail to see beyond the “greatest country on earth” narrative?
The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once said that “patriotism is a virtue of the vicious”, and that can be interpreted to suggest that many violent conflicts around the globe have been a product of nationalism and patriotism. It also means that, at home, the patriotism banner can and has been used by the powerful to blunt any social change that they feel threatened by.
Patriotism, when tied to religion, provides an even stronger impediment to structural change. A clear example of course is the concept of manifest destiny. The notion that god wanted white settlers to control this land fueled the almost complete genocide of indigenous peoples in North America. And to this day, we still see the intermingling of statements of American pride with being blessed by god.
To move beyond this and truly provide hope that America can be what it espouses, requires us to reject the idea that we are different from, and superior to, other people on the planet. We should reject jingoism and replace it with a shared sense of humanity that would foster a sense of pride in our collective heritage as people walking this earth, instead of pledging allegiance to an artificial and dangerous separation of peoples. Until then, I’ll align myself with my colleague David Jaffee’s view: “I think it is OK to ‘not be proud’ of a city, state, or nation that is unable to protect the public health of its citizens, as a lowest common denominator. Count me today, on Independence Day, among the ‘unproud’. But change is coming.”
I too believe that change is coming, but it will require work. We see it in the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the global environmental movement, and in the LGBTQ movement, among many others. Change does not come easy…
So, on this Independence Day, as I contemplate the state of Donald Trump’s America while bicyclists in red, white and blue stream by my driveway, I would like to close with a far less quoted segment of the Frederick Douglass speech that I started this essay with, where he looks to the road ahead:
“Oh! that I had the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”