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.

“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

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?

It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “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] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.

What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]

Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.

But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.

One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.

The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:

The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]

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

[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667

[iii] ibid., 700

[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.

[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494

[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111