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

Standing room only at McAllen, TX, detention center, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.

––– The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

“If you want water, drink from the toilet.”

 ––– U.S. Border Patrol agent to a thirsty immigrant, July 1, 2019

 

John Adams, our second President, predicted a Fourth of July “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] It would be a time to remember our origins, honor our ideals, and pledge ourselves to nurture and preserve the noblest portions of our national life.

In the nineteenth century, the vision of Independence Day as a national covenant of memory and renewal found exuberant expression in the verbal fireworks of grand orations. These long-winded blasts of rhetorical excess came to be known as “making the eagle scream,” but their homiletic intention was serious: to summon the people to “effusions of gratitude” for America’s sacred origins, and to encourage “a faithful and undeviating adherence” to the principles of liberty, equality and the common good. [ii]

But what about those who are excluded from the blessings of liberty? By the 1820s, some Independence Day orators began to call out the inconsistency of celebrating freedom while so many still wore the chains of slavery. “We ought to remember that the happiness we enjoy is not universal,” Giles B. Kellogg told an audience at Williams College on July 4, 1829. “This will temper our exultation and render more heart-felt our tribute of gratitude . . . There are those among us who are shut out from the light of freedom, chained down in the prison house of bondage . . . those of common origins with ourselves, inheritors of the same great blessings, heirs to the same immortality.” [iii]

The most famous of these abolitionist orations was delivered on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, to the Rochestery Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. As an escaped slave himself, he gave voice to the voiceless with fiery eloquence:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy––a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” [iv]

Irony and guilt continue to haunt our national celebrations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Racism is alive and well, along with other long-standing national sins. And the concentration camps on our southern border, where federal agents put children in cages and subject countless refugees to conditions of torture, certainly make the rhetoric of freedom an unholy sham in our own day.

For those who are more offended by the words “concentration camp” and “torture” than by the realities they describe, let me point out that while these are certainly loaded terms, they are technically accurate. A concentration camp is defined as “a place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities.”[v] While the most notorious examples are Nazi death camps and Soviet labor camps, the term itself has a broader application. As for torture, a physician who witnessed the appalling conditions of the camps––“extreme cold temperatures, lights on 24 hours a day, no adequate access to medical care, basic sanitation, water, or adequate food”––concluded that “the conditions within which they are held could be compared to torture facilities.” [vi]

Detention Center, Weslaco, Texas (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

How shall we respond to such evil? Let Douglass be our teacher:

“O! had I 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.”

 

Detention Center, McAllen, Texas, June 10, 2019 (Office of Inspector General, Dept. of Homeland Security)

The Fourth of July should be a day of atonement not only for the cruel barbarity of the Trump administration––which would indeed “disgrace a nation of savages”––but also for our collective impotence to make it stop. Instead, the president is stealing millions of dollars from our National Parks to stage a military spectacle in his honor, and to desecrate the Lincoln Memorial with hate speech to his adoring mob (Trump opponents will be kept at a distance to silence the voice of protest). And to such shameless and pitiful parody of Independence Day, the words of Douglass make perfect reply:

“Oh! be warned! be warned! a horrible reptile is coiled up in your nation’s bosom; the venomous creature is nursing at the tender breast of your youthful republic; for the love of God, tear away, and fling from you the hideous monster, and let the weight of [the people] crush and destroy it forever!”

 

 

Related post: July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203.

[ii] Phrases taken from the July 4, 1821 oration of John Quincy Adams in Washington, D.C., when he was Secretary of State. This and many other Independence Day orations may be found at https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th.html

[iii] https://classicapologetics.com/special/4th/Kellogg.Oration.1829.pdf

[iv] Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (July 5, 1852). https://www.thenation.com/article/what-slave-fourth-july-frederick-douglass/

[v] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/concentration_camp Some might argue for the term “refugee detention center,” where people may indeed suffer from logistical overload. But the deliberate and intentional infliction of suffering by the Border Patrol and its white supremacist enablers in the Administration justifies, in my view, the more damning term.

[vi] Matt Stieb, “Everything We Know About the Inhumane Conditions at Migrant Detention Camps,”New York Magazine (July 2019). The physician quoted is Dolly Lucio Sevier: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/the-inhumane-conditions-at-migrant-detention-camps.html

Fourth of July

I love the Fourth of July. After beginning the day in the company of Charles Ives and Emily Dickinson, I will run a 5K, watch the ragtag town parade, take in some local baseball, gather with friends for croquet, barbecue and American folk tunes sung around an outdoor fire, and join the annual procession of neighbors to the end of our street for fireworks over the harbor. This in itself is enough to honor the day – life and community affirmed with our fellow citizens as we sound the resonant notes of tradition.

But the liturgist in me wonders if we might do something more consciously formative with our American holiday, as our forebears did. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the Fourth of July was an occasion not only to celebrate our ideals, but also to educate the public in the habitual virtues of public life by which those ideals might continue to be realized. A central part of this educative function was the Fourth of July oration, a long-winded address that recalled the great deeds of the past, tabulated the growth and progress achieved over the years, and exhorted the listener toward the same zeal for liberty and the common good that had inspired our founders.

The speakers all tried to tune their themes to the situation of their time. An oration given in 1838 before an abolitionist society noted the ironies of church bells and cannons sounding in celebration of liberty while in the same land could be heard the clanking of chains on the limbs of a million slaves. Another, given on the eve of World War I, called upon America to lead the way in the overthrow of war as an instrument of policy.

As a longtime lover of California’s mountains, I am especially fond of Thomas Starr King’s oration of 1860, delivered to the Episcopal Sunday School Mission Celebration in San Francisco, celebrating the fact that California had not seceded from the Union. “Thank heaven,” he declared, “there is no doubt of our geography. The Sacramento is an American river. The San Joaquin is not held by traitors. San Diego is an American port…” King then described the red alpenglow and azure shadows on the white glacier of Mt. Shasta as Nature’s emphatic salute to the Red, White and Blue!

The one thing these orations have in common is their assumption of a people, a public, who are committed to working together to implement the ideals that gave us birth. “We swear,” cried a young John Quincy Adams on July 4, 1793, “we swear by the precious memory of the sages who toiled and of the heroes who bled in her defense, that we will prove ourselves not unworthy of the prize which they so dearly purchased; that we will act as the faithful disciples of those who so magnanimously taught us the instructive lesson of republican virtue.”

In other words, keep your eyes on the prize. The watchwords of the Revolution – liberty and the common good – are powerful ideas. Even the most corrupt and cynical among us must still give them lip service if they aspire to political power. As Daniel Ellsberg once said, the best thing that you can say about the American people is that you have to lie to us.

The American experiment is not over. We no longer conduct it with the illusion that we are innocent of the old corruptions, that humanity’s darker impulses are somehow absent from the American heart. Holden Caulfield and Daisy Miller have grown older and wiser. And yet there are many among us who refuse to give up, who refuse to retreat from public life and the common good. There are many among us who continue to dream, continue to strive, continue to believe that we shall overcome, that “America the beautiful” is still a possibility.

I do not imagine that Americans will ever again submit to the custom of lengthy orations under a hot sun, but might there be other ways to mark the day with experiences, images and rituals which reconnect us with our ideals and with each other? I wouldn’t put any politicians on that planning committee, or preachers either. Instead, I would entrust the task to artists, musicians, poets and activists. My vote to head the enterprise would be the 8-year-old Hopi girl whose recurring daydream of a redeemed public life is recorded in Robert Coles’ The Spiritual Life of Children:

All the people are sitting in a circle, and they are brothers and sisters, everyone! That’s when all the spirits will dance and dance, and the stars will dance, and the sun and moon will dance and the birds will swoop down and they’ll dance, and all the people, everywhere, will stand up and dance, and then they’ll sit down again in a big circle, so huge you can’t see where it goes, or how far, if you’re standing on the mesa and looking into the horizon, and everyone is happy. No more fights. Fights are a sign that we have gotten lost, and forgotten our ancestors, and are in the worst trouble. When the day comes that we’re all holding hands in the big circle – no, not just us Hopis, everyone – then that’s what the word ‘good’ means…and the whole world will be good when we’re all in our big, big circle. We’re going around and around until we all get to be there!