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What is the Fourth of July to me?

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I’ve been thinking of what July 4th means to me. Never before in my lifetime has the country been so absorbed by the meaning of this national holiday. But the BLM movement has forced all of us to reconsider it. Is July 4th the happy, historic celebration of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence? Yes, in a formal sense. It was on July 4, 1776, that the thirteen American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, Great Britain. When I was growing up, we were taught that the holiday was one of great joy and patriotism; hence the fireworks and parades. Nobody suggested there was a dark side to July 4.

But this past holiday was different. I saw countless interviews on T.V. of Black people saying, in effect, “July 4th isn’t our holiday. Juneteenth is.” Which makes total sense to me. And this ties into the monuments debate; I don’t know exactly how many signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveowners, but it had to be a considerable number. Certainly, Thomas Jefferson was. I have no problem at all with removing statues of slaveowners. And for sure, the southern “heroes” of the Civil War were traitors; they committed treason as surely as Benedict Arnold did; and it was only due to Abraham Lincoln’s spiritual magnanimity that Lee, Davis and the other political and military leaders of the Confederacy were not rounded up and hung. The Allies after World War II did exactly that: we rounded up the top Nazis and hung them or imprisoned them for a long time. We certainly didn’t celebrate German generals like Rommel, Guderian or Jodl, or build statues to them, although if we’re going to be totally honest about it, they were as brave, idealistic and patriotic as were Lee, Stonewall Jackson or Longstreet. So let the statues and plaques come down.

If I’m to figure out what July 4th means to me, I have to determine what America means to me. My generation was raised to believe that America is the indispensable country: the best, most democratic, freest country in the world, a “shining city on a hill,” the culmination of history. Our Constitution is the envy of the world. We might not always get everything right, but we set the pace for everybody else.

Well, that’s the theory anyway. And it was true for a very long time. America was the envy of the world through most of the 19th century and certainly for the first half of the 20th century. We helped to win World War II and defeat the perils of Nazism and fascism, which really were menaces. But the final fifty years of the 20th century were filled with lessons of history. We learned, or had to be taught, that Black people hadn’t exactly participated in the fabled American Dream. Women weren’t even allowed to vote until 1920—exactly 100 years ago. Gay people were routinely ostracized. Japanese people were interned during WWII; poor people never fared well in America, and as we know all too well, our country is still the only so-called industrialized nation on Earth not to offer universal healthcare to its citizens. And there are other woes I could catalogue.

This was not apparent in the 1950s when I was in grade school, but it sure is today, and it colors my views of my country. I can no longer parrot the Republican line that America is the land of the free and home of the brave. We carry the burdens of several horrible legacies, slavery chief among them; how and why the issue of forced, legalized servitude was not emphasized more strongly in the schools when I was a kid is a source of bafflement to me. Human, chattel slavery is one of the worst crimes in the world. We’re paying the price for our stupidity. I may deplore the violence and looting that accompanies so many of the peaceful BLM protests, but I know enough of history to understand their rationale. You can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs.

So when I see these rightwingers at Trump rallies with their American flags, spouting platitudes about America and MAGA, I don’t feel any patriotism at all. Rather, I feel shame that such a stupid movement exists in my country. I don’t hate America. I rather like the relative freedoms we have here, and I love the radical idea that “all men are created equal.” But I hate the economic disparities, the homophobia, racism and xenophobia that Trump has enabled, I deplore the religious crackpots that have too much influence in government, and I condemn these NRA, open-carry ammophiles who feel they can’t be masculine without some sidearm strapped to their hip.

So July 4th? Maybe I’ll feel better about it next year. This year? Meh.

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