Many years ago - fifty, in fact - I was at the July 4th Boston Pops concert and fireworks show on the Esplanade along the Charles River. This was well before it became a thing that attracted half-a-million people, etc. I haven't been for years. Make that decades. Why subject myself to the security measures and all those people when I can watch the concert on TV and the fireworks out the window?
Anyway, at that long ago concert, my roommate and I were sitting on our blanket (a madras bedspread: this was, after all, 1970) next to a young couple with a little girl who was 1 1/2 or 2.
The Pops concert, then an now, always featured some sing-along and clap-along numbers. We were in the clap-along to The Stars and Stripes Forever moment, all of us dutifully clapping along. With the exception of the toddler on the next blanket. She just was not feeling it. She wasn't acting out in any way - although God knows the concert must have been a pretty boring experience for such a little kiddo. Just happy to be sitting there not clapping along.
Mom, however, wasn't having any of that behavior, and zoomed right in to harsh that little one's mellow.
At first, she mildly attempted to coax her daughter into clapping, even taking her hands to demonstrate how clapping worked - just in case her child was having a senior mo and had forgotten how to patty-cake. Anyway, the little girl continued to resist - how terrible! how two! - and mom kept escalating, until she grabbed the kid, roughly, by her arm and hissed, "Clap or I'll clap your ass."
Not surprisingly, this didn't put the child into a patriotic frame of mind in the least. The family departed, not in a patriotic fervor, but in a huff.
I usually feel reasonably good about the Fourth of July, and generally enjoy it. I read the Declaration of Independence in the Boston Globe. (Say what you will, those boys could write.) I sing along with the Pops when they play Grand Old Flag. I wear my light blue baseball cap with the flag on it - if only to show that die-hard liberals can be patriotic, too.
Truth is, I'm not patriotic as it has come to be defined by so many - the others, the them. My country, right or wrong. Love it or leave it. Me? I always drift on back to the Jules Feiffer cartoon from the late 1960's: Heads off! The flag!
There is a lot to like - even love - and admire about my country. It's complex, beautiful, vibrant, big-shouldered and often bighearted. It was founded by men who, while imperfect, were brilliant. (Imperfect: slavery, the Electoral College...) We are a nation built on ideas, not bloodlines or religion. America provided a home for my Irish immigrant great-grandparents, and for my German (by way of Rumania) immigrant grandparents - my mother in tow, not much older than that toddler who wouldn't clap along. They had a lot more opportunities, and they became a lot more prosperous here than they would have in the old country. To me, the genius of the United States is that it doesn't matter who you are, what you are, and where you came from, you can become an American, in your first generation here, in a way that you can't become Irish by moving to Ireland, or German by moving to Germany.
Has this worked out equally well for all? Obviously not. There are lumps in the melting pot.
Still, I'm glad I'm here, and not in Syria, or Russia, or North Korea, or in any number of places where life would be pretty damned awful.
Notice I didn't say Ireland or Germany here. Because, in truth, while life in those places would have been harsher and far more difficult for my great-grandparents and grandparents - even though they were all intelligent, industrious, hardworking - if they'd stayed, there's no doubt in my mind that if you fast forwarded a couple of generations, by my generation, "we" would be doing pretty well. We'd be well-educated. We'd have good jobs. We'd have a lot more possessions than what fit in the small trunks that Matthew, Bridget, John, Margaret, Jacob, Magdalena, and Elisabeth (my mother) came over with.
Still, I'm happy to be here. It's just that I have no problem acknowledging that there are plenty of other countries where you can live in prosperity and freedom, without the burden of having to live in a superpower that continually gets itself all caught up in its exceptionalism, its need to think of itself as the greatest nation ever in the whole wide world ever. USA! USA! Maybe yes, maybe no. Canada's pretty good, isn't all. All the goodies, none of the baggage.
When I was in college, during the Vietnam War, I had this poster (Sister Corita meets Albert Camus) in my dorm room.
I no longer have the poster, but the sentiment still holds.
I hope that we can work things through as we - hopefully - begin to seriously grapple with our original sin of slavery. And I hope to do my bit by voting for decent people, by donating to worthy causes, and by working through my own shit - because ain't none of us escaped the swirl of racism untouched.
This is a scary year. Addressing racism is scary. Living during a pandemic is scary. Having an iffy economy is scary. Having an evil and incompetent man in the White House who would seemingly like nothing better than to foment a race-based civil war, who would prosecute/persecute his perceived enemies on trumped up charges, who would do everything possible to suppress the votes of those who would vote against him, who would silence the free press, who insults our democratic allies while sucking up to strong men who'd like nothing better than to see us topple over in ruins, and who could give two shits if millions of people die thanks to the coronavirus hoax (as long as most of those millions are brown or black) and many millions more die because of his climate change denial, is scary.
Life being scary is not the reason I'm not feeling so Glorious Fourth-y this year. It's watching the country that I - am I going to use the L word? yes I am - love come apart at the seams that's taking the joy out of the day for me. Can we get through all this? I certainly hope so.
Until then, fingers crossed for a more Glorious Fourth next year.