Fourth of July 2020: Last Rites for a Dying America?

The burning of Washington, 1814.

“The country is on fire. It is in flames. We cannot stomp it out.
And the rest of the world is looking on in horror.”

— Chris Hayes [i]

 

I was born between D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and for the first time in my life, the Fourth of July will not be a celebration. Even when our country had gone astray in Vietnam or Iraq, even in the shameful eras of segregation or government-sanctioned torture, it still seemed possible to make ritual remembrance of America’s ideals and renew our collective hope in the better angels of our nature. Not this year.

For 1260 miserable days, we have endured a relentless assault on Constitutional principles and democratic norms by an authoritarian president, with a Congress and political structure either too paralyzed or too corrupt to resist. An unending stream of atrocities has made us so numb that even Trump’s despicable (and treasonous?) betrayal of American soldiers in Afghanistan is not sufficient to force his resignation. But as it turns out, the erosion (and potential demise) of our democracy will be of no concern for hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of U. S. citizens. By the next Fourth of July, they will be dead.

It’s not entirely Trump’s fault. Our healthcare delivery system is not well-suited to the conditions of pandemic. Neither is an economy which forces many workers into close proximity. And then there are those lockdown rebels, defiant to the end: “Give me liberty AND give me death.”

But there’s no denying the conclusion that Trump’s well-documented incompetence, unpreparedness, and criminal neglect have already caused, by some estimates, 60% of the U.S. deaths from COVID-19. As of today, we count 78,000 Americans whose lives were lost because the White House was incapable of a timely and well-managed response.[ii] And it is only getting worse. As we surpassed 50,000 new cases per day on July 1, Trump was still preaching magical thinking: Pretend there’s no problem and it will soon go away.

“How long can we live with this President?” is no longer a figure of speech. For the most vulnerable among us, it has become existential. Is it hyperbole to call Trump a mass murderer? Do the math. Sixteen 9/11s in a single day. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, that could soon double. Thank you, Mr. President.

In a sobering Atlantic article, “The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything,” James Fallows compares the United States to an airplane being flown into a mountain. “At least in an airplane cockpit, the first officer can grab the controls from a captain who is steering the aircraft toward doom.” But our politics don’t work that way. A veteran intelligence official quoted in the article sums up the problem exactly: “Our system has a single point-of-failure: an irrational president.” [iii]

In his classic study, The American Adam [iv], R. W. B. Lewis examines fresh starts and new possibilities as the dominant tropes of American myth-making: a new Eden, the land of the free. This has required the repression of certain facts. North America was not an uninhabited space for the taking. “All men are created equal” was written by a slaveholder. The degree to which these tragic ironies have been balanced by substantial instances of liberation, justice and human flourishing continues to be contested.

But in any case, America identity—e pluribus unum—is a construction of fact and myth, (selective) memory and metaphor, aspiration and ideal. As one scholar puts it, “America has to be thought in order to be lived, but for both to happen, it had to be written.… America was invented, not discovered.”[v] We trace our nation’s birth to a rhetorical scripture, “for the truth of which,” as Thomas Jefferson put it, “we pledge a faith as yet unsullied by falsehood.” [vi]

Independence Day celebrates a radical break from the past, a casting off of the old order for the new. In “Earth’s Holocaust,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fable of revolution written in 1844, a great crowd gathers on a vast prairie to make a bonfire of everything humanity needs to renounce: the trappings and symbols of repressive institutions and economic inequality—all the “outworn trumpery” (!) of the world. The unprecedented scale and duration of the Black Lives Matter protests is a vivid enactment of this trope, evoking America’s most radical premise: We are not bound to our past; we can reinvent the social order.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing institutions, communities, and individuals to reimagine how we live and move and have our being. When the pandemic passes, will we resume the old ways, or insist on something better? In another of his stories, Hawthorne proposed a state of perpetual renewal:

I doubt whether even our public edifices—our capitols, statehouses, courthouses, city-halls and churches—ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once every twenty years or thereabouts, as a hint to people to examine and reform the institutions which they symbolize.[vii]

Whether collective and personal transformation will come through purifying fire or the gentler urgings of wisdom and spirit, it will unmask our illusions and disturb our slumber. As David R. Williams reminds us, the sin of “profound unknowing” cannot endure:

We imagine we are awake and aware of what we are doing, but in fact we are walking in our sleep. We live in a constructed illusion of sounds we call words, and ideas we think we believe, and sights that at least seem to have reality. Most of the time, the illusion holds. But, as Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards warned …, “we walk over the pit of hell as on a rotten covering, and there are places in that covering so rotten that they will not bear our weight, and these places are unseen.” [viii]

So no, not a normal Fourth of July this year. In the worst case scenario, it could be our last, if our democracy continues to implode. As a member of what Emerson called the Party of Hope [ix], I do not foresee that happening. But I do worry that my country is ill-prepared—emotionally or spiritually—for apocalypse of any kind. Even should the sun go out and the moon turn to blood, some will still be shouting, “Fake news!”

In 1957, a ten-year-old Stephen King was watching a movie matinee of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a sci-fi film about alien invaders from outer space.

“[J]ust when it was reaching the good part, with Washington in flames and the final, cataclysmic interstellar battle about to be joined—the screen suddenly went dead. Well, kids started to clap and hoot, thinking the projectionist made a mistake or the reel had broken, but then, all of a sudden, the theater lights went on at full strength … then the theater manager came striding down the center aisle, looking pale, and he mounted the stage and said, in a trembling voice, ‘I want to tell you that the Russians have put a space satellite into orbit around Earth. They call it Sputnik. … ’ There was a long hushed pause as this crowd of fifties kids in cuffed jeans, with crewcuts or ducktails or ponytails, struggled to absorb all that; and then, suddenly, one voice, near tears but also charged with terrible anger, shrilled through the stunned silence: ‘Oh, go show the movie, you liar!” [x]

 

Related posts:

Fourth of July

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

“Your celebration is a sham” — Independence Day in an Age of Cruelty

 

[i] Chris Hayes, from his MSNBC program, All In with Chris Hayes, July 2, 2020.

[ii] https://trumpdeathclock.com

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/how-white-house-coronavirus-response-went-wrong/613591/?fbclid=IwAR34gDXbfiSeHF-WEnBx5mR-g-sJBkkgskC29rSIY2NH_UdZBBuwgf9RYC0

[iv] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955)

[v] Geoff Ward, The Writing of America: Literature and Cultural Identity from the Puritans to the Present (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2002), 17.

[vi] This line from Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence would be deleted by committee, but it expresses the document’s Edenic spirit (“as yet unsullied by falsehood”). Cited in Ward, 28.

[vii] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1850), cited in Lewis, 19.

[viii] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 204.

[ix] Ralph Waldo Emerson described a duality in American culture as a schism between the Party of Memory (tradition, or reverence for a “sacred” past or origin) and the Party of Hope (dedicated to rebirth and new possibilities). These are not, of course, to be confused with specific political parties, and most of us belong to both (except, perhaps, for members of a third party, the Party of Irony). See the discussion in Lewis, 7.

[x] Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (eds), Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King (New York: New English Library, 1990), p. 22, cited in Ward, 119.

The Mind of Winter

Bainbridge Island, morning (February 10, 2019).

This year’s winter has been intense across much of North America. Even here in Puget Sound, where snow is mostly occasional and swiftly gone, the drifts lie heavy and deep upon the earth. For those of us accustomed to the Northwest’s seasonal grays and greens, so much whiteness is otherworldly.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–– Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

Stevens strove to attain the mind of winter, where all the poet’s fictions, the “pathetic fallacy” by which romantics color the world with their own feelings, are stripped away, leaving only the bareness of uninterpreted bedrock reality. The tree without the seductive flutter of fresh spring leaves, or the gaudy makeup of autumn color. Only behold “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” No more delusions or illusions. A wind that is only wind and not the sound of our keening hearts.

Emerson also stood in that bare place, and in what Harold Bloom calls “the central passage in American literature…the crucial epiphany of our literature’s Central Man,” he experienced what he called a vanishing of ego: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” This pure transparency is itself a fiction – the self and its experience are still being celebrated––but it is a brave leap into the mind of winter nonetheless: to see the world as it is, not as we would have it. Let go of our scripts. Stop coloring the world with our desire. Wait without thought, without premature description, for the world to reveal itself in time, to say whatever it wants to say to us.

Although our images of an earthly paradise are painted with the colors of spring and summer, the blank expanses of the Polar regions have haunted our imagination with equal force. In Moby Dick, all that whiteness struck Ishmael as an erasure of everything familiar, revealing “all other earthly hues…the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods…the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls” to be “subtle deceits…whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within.”

Not everyone who journeyed to the regions of ice was as dour as Melville. Many were inspired by their experience of the sublime. Sir Ernest Shackleton, writing of his own harrowing sojourn in Antarctica, said, “We had pierced the veneer of outside things…We had seen God in his splendors, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.” But as the history of Polar exploration tells us, such knowledge comes with a cost.

When Amundsen dashed to the South Pole and back with efficient ease and no loss of life, the English admirers of the tragic Scott expedition, who had “died like gentlemen” in the heart of the white void, criticized him for making it too easy and missing the point of full immersion in the mind of winter. “Are these people mad?” was Amundsen’s laconic response.

Bainbridge Island, evening (February 10, 2019).

Literary critic Northrup Frye has described the yearly cycle in terms of mythic archetypes. Spring is dawn, birth, renewal – the realm of comedy. Summer is noon, the season of romance. Autumn is sunset, death, the sphere of tragedy. And winter is darkness and dissolution, whose theatrical form is satire -the naked truth unadorned by projection, uncolored by affection. The cold regarding gaze. And the implication is, “We won’t get fooled again.”

But we will, and that is the endearing nature of the cycle, the turning of the wheel that will take us through comedy, romance and tragedy all over again. We haven’t really forgotten our hard-won knowledge, our steely mind of winter. It’s just that life cannot––should not––be lived without the bright hues of our affections. And so we will keep risking illusion for the sake of the ecstasies that the unromantic Amundsens never taste.

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.