July 4, 2017
Ah, the Fourth of July. For the part of the country that suffers harsh winters, summertime is a joyful time, and the Fourth is its apex. For my part of the country, the part that doesn’t suffer so much in the winter but where summer provides the test of human endurance, summertime is not so joyful. And the Fourth isn’t much of a mid-summer demarcation line for us in the Deep South. It’s not the time when summer reaches its peak and starts to fade. Summer is just getting cranked up by the Fourth. There’s still a good three months of misery left, maybe a bit less or more, depending on the whims of the mad gods mixing the warm Gulf of Mexico air with the cold Arctic air. Sometimes we get a cold front (i.e., daytime temperatures that don’t break 90) by late August. Sometimes we don’t see tolerable weather until late October (last year).
The mythology of the Fourth doesn’t stir my soul. It might have, a bit, when I was younger and naïve, but now I know that most of what I was taught about American history was just dogma intended to mythologize a glorious past to bind and propel us forward in the present. Tales of origins—be it of families, tribes, nations, empires, secular and religious organizations, whatever—are always at least partly mythological. They take a kernel of truth (usually) and build a majestic edifice of glory and goodness (usually). The Jews’ myth of mankind’s origins starts with a glorious beginning—the creation of the world and man by God—that is then spoiled by man’s inability to resist sin. Neither God nor man inspire admiration in the Genesis story. God inspires awe at his power and fear at his arbitrary and capricious nature. Adam and Eve inspire self-loathing more than anything. But then the point of the story is not to glorify man, but to humble him relative to God.
Origins myths act as shibboleths—indicia of belonging. Do you believe George Washington was so honest until he couldn’t even lie to his father about cutting down a cherry tree? Have you internalized the notion that the founding fathers believed all men were created equal as they proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence? Then you can join the pantheon of patriots who call themselves real Americans. Of course, there is utterly no evidence of Washington’s having cut down a cherry tree and honestly telling his father about it, and a mountain of evidence that Washington was a practiced politician who knew exactly when to lie and how much in creating for himself a myth of unassailable integrity. And taking what the founding fathers did over what they said, their admonition that all men are created equal very obviously applied to only men (i.e., ‘men’ was not used in the context to signify mankind) of European descent who owned property. Everyone else was not so equal, especially slaves and women, but also poor whites. That we revise history to fit what we believe today—I’ve read one commentator who claimed that the founding fathers meant their proclamation as an ideal that might one day be achieved even as none of them ever took action to see its manifestation in their time—is precisely the stuff of mythmaking.
My own natal family does its share of origins mythologizing. On what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of my mother’s marriage to my dad (she died five years ago), dad sent me a text saying how special the day that he married ‘us’ was, wondering whether I remembered it. I was four and a half at the time. I told him I didn’t, that my memories centered on how things gradually changed after their marriage, particularly how I was no longer treated like a pariah solely for not having a vagina (my single mom and older sister ran an oppressive, male-hating matriarchy for the first four and a half years of my life which comprised essentially my whole world—I never knew my real father, or even who he was). I told him that to me, their marriage represented the freedom to be a little boy—to learn to swim and ride a bike and be free of my older sister’s domineering influence. I told him that I figured the actions he took to usurp the power of the matriarchy had little to do with me, but that I was an incidental beneficiary, and for that I would be forever grateful. That was not what he wanted to hear. That did not square with the origins myth he’s trying to concoct before he descends to the grave, and I knew it, but then, what I said about my feelings were true. You may not get the dates and events exactly right when conjuring memories (e.g., I could never remember exactly how old I was when they got married—was I five or four?), but you always get the feelings right. He hasn’t contacted me since. I am again a pariah because remembering only happiness is a shibboleth, a requirement for belonging, to the familial organization he’s trying to embellish and fortify for his eternal rest.
Do you believe that America never fights wars of choice, that it only fights to defend itself and bring freedom and democracy to benighted peoples and lands? Then you might make a patriot. Of course, you’ll have to ignore pretty much every war except the War of 1812 to believe such nonsense. The Indian wars and genocide? Definitely a choice—either compelled initially as a get-rich-quick scheme (the Virginia Colony) or a desire to create what amounted to a North American caliphate, but Christian, more puritanically devoted to Calvinistic teachings and the worship of God (the Plymouth Bay colony). The Revolution (which wasn’t a revolution at all, but a war to determine who should get rich off America’s bounty)? It was a choice, and one that a great many colonists, particularly South Carolinians, did not support. The Civil War? Lincoln did not have to fight to preserve the Union. He could have let it splinter along slavery lines. It was a choice to force the States of the Confederacy back into the fold. The Mexican-American War? Just a ho hum military adventure directed at expanding the territory (which it did—bringing Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah and Nevada into American possession). Ditto the Spanish-American War. And there was absolutely no reason for jumping into the fray in Europe in 1917 except that we just couldn’t bear not to get our licks in. We’ve always loved a good fight. World War Two? Japan attacked the US fleet docked at a US protectorate. We had to fight back. But we didn’t have to go as far as we did. The Cold War? Contrived nonsense intended to keep the Military-Industrial Complex humming along, and the world bristling with our weaponry. Contrary to popular imagination, we started the Cold War with our belligerence towards the Soviet Union after World War Two. They felt threatened, so tried to match our belligerence with armaments, which we used to justify even greater belligerence and more arms. And today, Afghanistan and Iraq? Very obviously wars of choice. We didn’t have to invade Afghanistan to get Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. And we never had a good reason to invade Iraq—not the first time just after the Cold War, or the second time, after 9-11.
By now, we’ve been fighting so long until we haven’t any idea what peace might look like. We don’t feel existentially fulfilled without which we aren’t killing people and destroying things somewhere. The lame ISIS conflict likely won’t be enough to keep us happily engaged building munitions and employing them. Look for us to find a new war somewhere. Maybe North Korea. Maybe the South China Sea. Who knows, maybe even Russia. Either way, it seems about time to go find a war to fight so we can bring peace and democracy to benighted peoples somewhere.
I loathe firecrackers. Both for what they stand for—bombs bursting and all that—and because I hate loud noises that sound like gunfire and bombs. I heard plenty of gunfire during my time in the service and it was always something that represented danger—even while at the firing range. And I saw numerous bombs bursting in the air during the first Iraq War as Saddam rained scud missiles down everywhere but wherever they were aimed. So, that part of the Fourth I actively avoid, which was hard in the neighborhood where we used to live, as the fireworks show each fourth could be seen from our front yard.
Since I don’t believe in much of anything that the Fourth of July stands for, what do I believe? I believe that the people of this country are generally good. I believe that our way of life, and the freedom we have to face life on our own terms is generally a good thing. I believe that the land itself is beautiful. And I am grateful that I have the freedom to worship God as I please, or not at all (something which people couldn’t do until well after the ratification of the Constitution, when the 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to State actions). So, I’m not a nattering nabob of negativism. But I’m also not a Panglossian optimist. I’m a realist. Some things are good in the here and now and others need a little work. I don’t think it’s necessary to contrive fictional tales in order to acknowledge as much.