Hang around long enough and you get jaded, or maybe simply tired. It’s that way with baby boomers, those of us who have seen sixty-eight Fourth of Julys go by. We had fathers who fought in World War II and wouldn’t talk about it. Others called them Greatest Generation, much later – they didn’t. That war was awful. They made it through. That was all you needed to know. Instead, they talked about growing up during the Great Depression. Life is hard. It can all fall apart in a minute. Make good money if you can, save all you can, and don’t go spending it all on foolishness – and don’t whine about your soul-crushing job that isn’t at all what you wanted for your life. You have a job. That’s what matters – and that meant that each Fourth of July in the late fifties and early sixties was a lark. There were parades, and some local politician gave a speech about the Founding Fathers that no one listened to, and there were fireworks – and no one was angry about anything. Our system of government worked pretty well. Good for us.
That changed in the middle of the sixties. There was a civil rights movement. Our system of government didn’t work well – it took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to fix a few things. Even so, some – George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and later, Jesse Helms – argued that those things didn’t need fixing. There are states’ rights, you know. That’s how America was set up. Others said no, the Civil War had settled that question. Hey, what don’t you understand about America? Each side could use that taunt, and that made each Fourth of July a bit tense – and then we went to war in Vietnam. That tore the country apart. Question authority! America, love it or leave it! By the end of that decade those words were shouted back and forth, and only those on the right celebrated the Fourth of July, because they alone were the patriots. They appropriated the holiday.
Those on the left were fine with that – enjoy your mindless jingoism that has caused so much death and ruined everything. Wave your flags. You’ll only look stupid. That carried on into the seventies – the Vietnam War ended in April, 1975 – and the Fourth of July was slow to recover. The holiday was angry Republicans waving the flag in your face and daring you to say there was even one minor thing wrong with America. If you did, they’d punch you in the face – not really, but that was the idea.
There’s still a bit of that in the air. The war this time was in Iraq. In 2003, if you questioned the wisdom of going to war over there you were on the side of the terrorists, and you probably hated America too. Those of us in college in 1968, the seminal year of the sixties – King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated and the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago – and who graduated in 1969, as Richard Nixon settled into his odd presidency – had seen this before. Did you love America? If not, shut up. Been there, done that, in 1968.
That second big war, in Iraq, didn’t go well either. America understood. The angry in-your-face flag waving is pretty much gone now. Mindless jingoism really is mindless. Why didn’t enough Americans see that? Its face was George W. Bush.
Mindless jingoism did fade, however. In fact, that was just documented:
The number of Americans who are extremely proud to call the United States home continued to decline this year, according to a new Gallup poll. The annual survey of how proud Americans are showed a 3 percentage point drop from last year with the number of those saying they are “extremely proud” moving from 57 percent to 54 percent.
The overall amount of Americans who feel some level of pride, however, is still high. According to the poll, 27 percent of those surveyed said they are very proud, 14 percent said moderately proud and 4 percent said they were only a little. One percent said they were not proud at all.
Ah. We’re proud, but not stupid, or we’re only selectively stupid:
When broken down into demographics, Southerners, Republicans and those above the age of 65 felt more extreme pride than those in other geographic regions or political parties. Specifically, 68 percent of Republicans are extremely proud compared to 47 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of those in Southern states feel extreme pride compared with 46 percent in the West, 50 percent in the East and 55 percent in the Midwest.
And it was that war:
The level of pride felt toward the country peaked around 2003, when 70 percent of those surveyed said they were extremely proud to be American.
We got over that war, but Salon’s Joan Walsh says we can be proud of other things:
July 4 has always been a time for aggrieved progressives to remind the world that most Americans weren’t liberated on that first Independence Day. Enslaved Africans; dispossessed native Indians; women of every race; white men without property; LGBT Americans; the rights claimed in the stirring Declaration of Independence didn’t fully belong to most of us for many years.
That’s still a real, historic truth. But maybe, at least this year, we can celebrate the genuinely liberating, animating ideals of a country that came close to living up to them in a dizzying 24 hours last week.
The system worked pretty well:
In just one day, the country we are, the country we’ve been trying so long to become, emerged in indelible, unforgettable images. A few will always stay with me: Our first African-American president, standing before purple-robed ministers, singing the first notes of “Amazing Grace” with sorrow and defiance at a funeral for yet another black martyr. Two beaming elderly white gentlemen, Jack Evans and George Harris, becoming the first men to marry in Dallas, Texas, after the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality.
As the sun set Friday night, the White House glowed in rainbow colors. In the dawn’s early light the next day, a black woman scrambled up a flagpole, as if to freedom, and snatched down the Confederate flag. For a day, anything seemed possible. Which reminded us that it is. We celebrated a genuine Independence Day in those 24 hours, so let’s pause to take it in on this July 4 holiday.
And she likes this:
Even South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley opened new political horizons that hadn’t seemed possible just days before. I didn’t give Haley enough credit last week for her turnaround on the Confederate flag. I may not like the fact that it took political courage to reverse herself and rebuke the leaders – which included some Democrats, to be honest – who protected that symbol of hate for too long.
But it did take courage, and it shouldn’t have been lost on me that a young Indian-American woman who grew up Sikh in South Carolina, caught in the bitter chasm between black and white, found the grace and bravery to do what many white men of both parties could not. She changed our notion of what was possible, too.
And how can I forget one of the biggest victories for human decency over the last week: NBC and Macy’s finally parted ways with Donald Trump after the erstwhile presidential candidate derided Mexicans as criminals and rapists. Again, it shouldn’t have taken so long for the braying bully to get such a rebuke; the media tolerated his birtherism for far too long. But the arc of the moral universe is long, and finally it’s bending away from Donald Trump. Hallelujah.
Walsh seems to think all this has flipped the Fourth of July on its head:
If you have any doubts about the magnitude of what happened last week, spend some time catching up on Fox News, because over there, they get it. On Fox, Trump is a martyr to political correctness, and Bill O’Reilly says the rainbow-illuminated White House represented “an in your face to traditional America” from our tyrannical president. Whenever I get a little down, wondering if the causes I care about are making progress in the world, I take a restorative bath in #oreillytears. You should try it.
No, old baby boomers don’t do Twitter and its hashtags, but we get the idea. The Fourth of July changed hands.
Still, there will be those Fourth of July speeches by folks who want to be our next president, and Andrew Schocket, a professor of history and American culture studies at Bowling Green, offers a guide to those this year:
For politicians, nothing suits the holiday better than invocations of our nation’s Founders. Not all such exclamations are cut from the same red-white-and-blue cloth, however. Pay close attention as the candidates praise the “Spirit of ’76,” and you’ll see that they’re not taking a break from partisan rhetoric, but engaging in politics at its most elemental level. Here’s a guide to some founding-related phrases and what they really mean today.
Nothing says “I’m a conservative” more than this phrase. That’s because it evokes an image of rich white guys who didn’t like taxes (until they had to wage a war, in which case they raised them to levels unimagined under British rule, but that’s another story). Warren G. Harding coined the term, and since 2000, it has been used almost exclusively by Republicans. The more conservative the candidate, the more likely you’ll hear it. Rand Paul, George Pataki, Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry have all flogged the Founding Fathers. But don’t expect to hear this from Hillary Clinton: She uses “Founders” instead.
“A more perfect union”
This is the liberal response to “Founding Fathers.” From the Constitution’s preamble, the phrase originally expressed the hope that the Constitution would be an improvement over its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation. Today, liberals use it to imply that the nation and perhaps even the Constitution weren’t immaculately conceived and stand in need of reform. You’ll encounter it especially when politicians want to take on large issues such as race or the increasingly prominent role of big money in politics. Expect to hear this from Clinton and especially openly liberal presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has used it before to celebrate Independence Day.
There’s more, but this one also stands out:
“Our sacred Honor”
The Declaration of Independence closes with its signers pledging “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” no small matter given that, had the Revolution failed, they all likely would have been executed for treason. “Honor” resonates more with men than with women, and more with conservatives than liberals, and the “sacred” part catches the ear of evangelical voters. Today the phrase gets used to imply that liberal officeholders are staining the nation’s reputation. It was often brought up in the 1990s by Republicans angry about Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky; don’t be surprised to hear it this year from Republicans attacking Hillary Clinton over Benghazi. Cruz spoke this phrase when he announced his 2016 candidacy.
So, we’ll still be fighting over who owns the Fourth of July, in code. That’s depressing, but Ed Kilgore notes this:
In what was billed as a speech on the economy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry delivered remarks to the National Press Club yesterday with some startling observations about the Republican Party and race. These observations were highlighted in Evan McMorris-Santoro’s account of the speech for BuzzFeed, and as we speak there’s a robust discussion of them underway on Twitter that involves, among others, Jonathan Chait, Harold Pollack, and John Legend (!).
It seems everyone is surprised that Rick Perry said this:
I know Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African-Americans. Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for Civil Rights. They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He felt parts of it were unconstitutional. States supporting segregation in the south, they cited states’ rights as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table.
As you know, I am an ardent believer in the 10th Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, as part of our Bill of Rights. The 10th Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved for the states respectively, or the individual. I know that state governments are more accountable to you than the federal government. But I’m also an ardent believer in the 14th Amendment, which says that no state shall deny any person in its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
There has been, and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing Civil Rights. Too often, we Republicans, me included, have emphasized our message on the 10th Amendment but not our message on the 14th. An Amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the great contributions of Republican Party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery.
Kilgore is amazed:
The first paragraph of this passage is a pretty blunt refutation of the revisionist history of the GOP and civil rights that we hear all the time – and heard again last week when some Republicans pretended there had never been anyone in their ranks who supported neo-Confederate imagery and rhetoric. The third paragraph an admission that Republican use – even by Perry himself- of state’s rights rhetoric sounds like a neo-Confederate dog-whistle to African-Americans. And the second paragraph includes something I don’t recall ever hearing: a Republican pol giving a shout-out to the 14th Amendment, which when mentioned at all in those circles is usually treated as the hellish loophole through which all sorts of Big Government evil has entered the political bloodstream.
But he’s not really that amazed:
What press accounts of Perry’s speech so far seem to be missing is how little he’s changed his actual policy commitments despite the big and arguably important rhetoric shift. He’s still defending voter ID laws; dropping those, I’d suggest (and John Legend seems to agree) is sort of the price of admission of any real conversation between Republicans and African-Americans. His discourse on Democratic failures continues to be loaded with all sorts of dubious propositions like the conservative urban myth (based on exaggerating a single study in Oregon) that Medicaid does nothing for its beneficiaries. And reading the transcript, it’s also hard not to notice that Perry descends into near-incoherence the moment the Q&A begins, making you wonder if the paragraphs I quoted above are anything other than a speechwriter or adviser’s one-time experiment.
So I’d stick with my first reaction upon reading about Perry’s remarks: will he make similar remarks to an all-white audience at some Pizza Ranch in Iowa?
No, he won’t, but something has shifted. That was one fleeting concession in the fight over who owns the Fourth of July stuff, over what we should be proud of and what we might fix.
Tom Engelhardt adds some perspective to that:
The rise and fall of great powers and their imperial domains has been a central fact of history for centuries. It’s been a sensible, repeatedly validated framework for thinking about the fate of the planet. So it’s hardly surprising, when faced with a country once regularly labeled the “sole superpower,” “the last superpower,” or even the global “hyperpower” and now, curiously, called nothing whatsoever, that the “decline” question should come up. Is the U.S. or isn’t it? Might it or might it not now be on the downhill side of imperial greatness?
Take a slow train – that is, any train – anywhere in America, as I did recently in the northeast, and then take a high-speed train anywhere else on Earth, as I also did recently, and it’s not hard to imagine the U.S. in decline. The greatest power in history, the “unipolar power,” can’t build a single mile of high-speed rail? Really? And its Congress is now mired in an argument about whether funds can even be raised to keep America’s highways more or less pothole-free.
Sometimes, I imagine myself talking to my long-dead parents because I know how such things would have astonished two people who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and a can-do post-war era in which the staggering wealth and power of this country were indisputable. What if I could tell them how the crucial infrastructure of such a still-wealthy nation – bridges, pipelines, roads, and the like – is now grossly underfunded, in an increasing state of disrepair, and beginning to crumble? That would definitely shock them.
And what would they think upon learning that, with the Soviet Union a quarter-century in the trash bin of history, the U.S., alone in triumph, has been incapable of applying its overwhelming military and economic power effectively? I’m sure they would be dumbstruck to discover that, since the moment the Soviet Union imploded, the U.S. has been at war continuously with another country (three conflicts and endless strife); that I was talking about, of all places, Iraq; and that the mission there was never faintly accomplished. How improbable is that? And what would they think if I mentioned that the other great conflicts of the post-Cold-War era were with Afghanistan (two wars with a decade off in-between) and the relatively small groups of non-state actors we now call terrorists? And how would they react on discovering that the results were: failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, and the proliferation of terror groups across much of the Greater Middle East (including the establishment of an actual terror caliphate) and increasing parts of Africa?
They would, I think, conclude that the U.S. was over the hill and set on the sort of decline that, sooner or later, has been the fate of every great power. And what if I told them that, in this new century, not a single action of the military that U.S. presidents now call “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” has, in the end, been anything but a dismal failure? Or that presidents, presidential candidates, and politicians in Washington are required to insist on something no one would have had to say in their day: that the United States is both an “exceptional” and an “indispensable” nation? Or that they would also have to endlessly thank our troops (as would the citizenry) for… well… never success, but just being there and getting maimed, physically or mentally, or dying while we went about our lives? Or that those soldiers must always be referred to as “heroes.”
In their day, when the obligation to serve in a citizens’ army was a given, none of this would have made much sense, while the endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb.
That endless defensive insistence on American greatness would have stood out like a sore thumb in 1953, when careful and quiet Eisenhower was president and no one talked much about what they had done in the war, when, on the Fourth of July there were parades, and some local politician gave a speech about the Founding Fathers that no one listened to, and there were fireworks – and no one was angry about anything. But those days are gone. Oh well. Hang around long enough and you get jaded, or maybe simply tired. One more Fourth of July will come and go. We’ll work things out eventually.