Everyone also knows The Treachery of Images (La trahison des images) – that 1929 painting by René Magritte. It shows a pipe and below it Magritte painted the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe? Of course it’s not a pipe. The painting is not the pipe. A pipe is a pipe. René Magritte was right. That’s a painting. Magritte was messing with us, as everyone knows, or they don’t – but it is sometimes useful to be honest and not claim a representation of the thing is the thing itself in any real way – and what follows is not a column.
There’s a reason for that. It’s the evening of the Fourth of July here in Hollywood, and there are the booms and thuds in the distance – fireworks everywhere – but it was day when not only nothing happened, no one was saying anything about what had already happened the day before, or the day before that. Pundits and political scientists and pollsters and politicians took the day off. The Egyptians had their military coup, or popular uprising – take your choice – the day before. That was convenient, and that Snowden fellow was still stuck on the Moscow airport, and there were no disasters or assassinations, or new wars breaking out – and the House Republicans took the day off so they didn’t vote to repeal Obamacare a thirty-eighth time. The markets didn’t soar or crash either – they we closed.
That was the problem. There was no way to say look, this just happened, and look, here’s what very smart and quite well-informed people are saying about it, and look, here’s what people with their own agenda are saying about, and consider, this is what that all might mean. Now THAT would be a column, which this is not. This, written while smoking an actual pipe, is a consideration of the day, the holiday, the Fourth of July, America’s birthday. What have we got going here? We all took the day off and there were picnics and parades and fireworks, but now all done by rote. We’re proud and happy, presumably, but a lot of that is going through the motions. Say a few patriotic things and have another beer.
There must be more to it than that, and Jeremy Adam Smith wonders about that:
If we feel pride, it should be in the accomplishments of our fellow citizens and in any contributions we ourselves have made toward making our country and community a better place, however small and local. Pride of simply being born American leads to hubris, which leads to bigotry and belligerence. For pride to be authentic, it must be something we feel we have earned.
The best American leaders have always made that distinction. We all know this line from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But few seem to remember the next line: “My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
The brutal Cold War context of these words is almost lost to us now, but the higher ideals behind them are not ambiguous. Kennedy presented himself as a patriot of the United States and as a citizen of the world, seeing no contradiction. These words are, at root, an appeal for authentic pride – citizenship as something that must be earned, in a nation that is part of a community of nations. Those are ideals worth celebrating on the Fourth of July.
He’s heard too much of what we’ve all heard – USA! USA! USA! AMERICA: FUCK YEAH!
Yeah, well, whatever – but see Ed Kilgore on American Exceptionalism:
An unavoidable subject on every Independence Day is the extent to which patriotic Americans are expected to proclaim that the United States isn’t just our beloved homeland, or a rich and highly accomplished society, or a wonderfully diverse culture, or the site of vast natural beauty, or that has long promoted values like freedom, equality and opportunity – no, it is also uniquely worthy of love and loyalty, and possessed of unique characteristics that give it a unique responsibility to make over the whole world in its image to the maximum extent possible.
That’s dangerous stuff:
The term is most often used and abused by conservatives these days to (a) to anathemize social democratic governing models and traditions as “European” and hence “Un-American;” and (b) to justify a unilateralist U.S. foreign policy. And ironically, when “American exceptionalists” are out of power, it leads many of them to a decidedly seditious attitude towards America itself: non-conservative American leaders and the citizens who support them are regarded as not authentically American, and thus as unworthy of loyalty, or even allegiance, from “real” Americans. Thus we see the strange anomaly of self-described super-patriots despising half the people in the country, hating the President of the United States, and brandishing firearms and revolutionary symbols to warn of their very limited and ever-contingent acceptance of election results and laws passed by Congress and judicial decisions.
They’ve got it wrong:
What’s most ironic about latter-day American exceptionalists is how deeply they resent the very American ideology of liberalism, which holds that this society like all others should be judged by universal norms, not some theory of unique endowment or divine empowerment. But then I guess it’s no stranger than the displacement of another great American tradition – official secularism, based not only on the religious (and irreligious) pluralism of the American people, but on the hostility of believers to politicized religion -by a theocratic impulse that represents European far more than American traditions.
In any event, on this Independence Day like others, I’ll express my love of country and gratitude for living here without pretending its distinctive features define goodness and reject fellowship.
It does seem odd that on America’s birthday – America, the finest of all melting-pots, where everyone gets a chance to build the life they want, because the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right and thus guaranteed – half the country will talk about who has no right to be here, and how more than a few who do have the right to be here should just be quiet and keep to the shadows. America wasn’t meant to be exclusionary, but perhaps this has always been so – when you’ve got a good thing going you don’t want to share it. You get talk of Real Americans and Real America. It’s a bit depressing.
It’s not the norm. British folks who come here and stay, and become citizens, see what the rest of us hardly notice. Henry Fairlie is one of those, a journalist who became an American citizen thirty years ago, on the Fourth of July. When he arrived, America was a real contrast to postwar Britain, and everywhere else too:
I had reported from some twenty-four countries before I set foot in America. I will never forget the first shock – even after having been in every country from the Sudan to South Africa—at realizing that I was in another place entirely, a New World. In the casbah of Algiers during the first referendum called by de Gaulle in 1959, when the women hurrying down the steep streets to vote for the first time pulled their yashmaks around their faces as they passed a man (which seemed to me only to make their dark eyes more fascinating), I was still in the Old World, however strange it was. But here in America it was all new.
This is what was new:
One spring day, shortly after my arrival, I was walking down the long, broad street of a suburb, with its sweeping front lawns (all that space), its tall trees (all that sky), and its clumps of azaleas (all that color). The only other person on the street was a small boy on a tricycle. As I passed him, he said “Hi!” – just like that. No four-year-old boy had ever addressed me without an introduction before. Yet here was this one, with his cheerful “Hi!” Recovering from the culture shock, I tried to look down stonily at his flaxen head, but instead, involuntarily, I found myself saying in return: “Well – hi!” He pedaled off, apparently satisfied. He had begun my Americanization.
“Hi!” As I often say – for Americans do not realize it – the word is a democracy. (I come from a country where one can tell someone’s class by how they say “Hallo!” or “Hello!” or “Hullo,” or whether they say it at all.) But anyone can say “Hi!” Anyone does.
He’s not kidding:
Shortly after my encounter with the boy, I called on the then Suffragan Bishop of Washington. Did he greet me as the Archbishop of Canterbury would have done? No. He said, “Hi, Henry!” I put it down to an aberration, an excess of Episcopalian latitudinarianism. But what about my first meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States, the Emperor of the Free World, before whom, like a Burgher of Calais, a halter round my neck, I would have sunk to my knees, pleading for a loan for my country? He held out the largest hand in Christendom, and said, “Hi, Henry!”
The idea here seems to be that how we use that one small word is emblematic:
America has – if one opens oneself to it – a bewitching power. From the very beginning the stranger feels its influence as a loosening. At first this can be disquieting. After all, one is not in an exotic land, where the differences are immediately striking, easy to see, so that one may be fascinated without really being touched by them. Yet from the beginning in America one feels this power, unsettling all that one had thought was familiar, fixed by the ages. To some – I have known them – it is alarming. For there do come moments when one realizes, more than in any other country not one’s own, that here one may be being remade.
Andrew Sullivan, another Brit who has chosen America, agrees with that assessment:
One thing that shocked me most about Washington when I moved there was the Mall. I was expecting some kind of royal park or something, I suppose. But around these massive neo-fascist monuments, Americans were playing Frisbee, chowing down on picnics, scuffing up the grass, treating the place as if it were their own. And then I realized the core difference: it was their own. There had been no monarchy presiding over this Mall after the Revolution – and that democratic instinct, that leveling perspective gave us Frisbees and volleyball and touch football all around secular hallowed ground. I was hooked within weeks of arrival here.
That’s what Fairlie sees:
I had been in the country about eight years, and was living in Houston, when a Texan friend asked me one evening: “Why do you like living in America? I don’t mean why you find it interesting – why you want to write about it – but why you like living here so much.” After only a moment’s reflection, I replied, “It’s the first time I’ve felt free.”
And maybe we should share that feeling:
I inevitably began to think of the others who have come. The curiosity about the country, which first brought and kept me here, scarcely entitles me to claim that I have shared the experience of most immigrants. I have no right to make it seem as if I came here traveling steerage, like the political refugees or those who simply had neither food nor hope in their native lands. But I will say this about the Statue of Liberty. It was an act of imagination, when the French proposed raising the money for it to celebrate the American Revolution, to choose such a site, and not Washington or Mount Vernon or Philadelphia, and to put on it that inscription, recalling not the English colonists who made the Revolution, but the millions upon millions if others who have come here since. They were drawn by the promise of this land; the land has performed for many more of them than it has failed; and they in turn have helped remake the nation. And still they come.
Of course they do, and that’s a good thing for everyone concerned – or it isn’t. Draw your own conclusions. This isn’t a column after all. Everyone took the day off.