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]
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.
[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.