Flags will wave. Children will clap. People will sing. Bands will play. Parades will march. And red rockets will soar, splashing the sky with a palette of white hues and blue shades; fiery sparkles twinkling down from the heights, reflecting a cascade of colors off ponds and lakes. It is the Fourth of July – a time for folding chairs and cookouts, a bank holiday and car sales. Everything becomes patriotic: the cookies and cakes at grocery stores, church signs, red, white, and blue balloons, party favors, glitter, buntings draped over porches, saluting dogs, and sleeping Americanized cats. People who have never left the country will say things like, “We live in the greatest country,” and, “We live in the richest country,” and, “Freedom isn’t free.” These are the monikers, slogans, and proverbs of patriots. And flags will wave, and children will clap. People will sing, and hearts will swell with pride. It’s our blessed birthday. Launch the red rockets.
Is this my Fourth of July? Is it yours? Is it right, and good, and a joyful thing – this holiday of ours? God bless America and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, spangled stars ‘tis of thee, purple mountain majesty. Has the truth gone marching on?
Patriotism now seems to mean an uncritical allegiance, blind support of military action, inebriated devotion to political persuasion. Memes. “Hit like and type ‘Amen’ if you agree.” Love of country feels like the reservation of isolation, a crevasse of identity separating us from them, whoever they may be. So, we wail against political correctness, fake science, fake news, unjust taxes, and we’d like nothing better than to build walls and staple “Keep Out” signs. Patriotism seems now only a publicly accepted form of anger management – outrage.
Patriotism looms as a form of amnesia. We forget the Native Americans driven out of their lands, the innumerable souls forced against these shores and sold into slavery. We forget Jim Crow, silenced women, the internment camps, The Red Scare, the unjust wars, the oppression of entire communities whose sexuality differs from what is collective called “normal.” We gawk and awe and are strangely amused by having a Reality-TV-Star “President” whose idea of self-reflection is to look in the mirror. “Quick, turn on cable news. There’s been another tweet!” In a land of so many alternative facts, it isn’t that we have just forgotten, we can’t remember.
But this isn’t that kind of blog because that isn’t what patriotism really is. Before we celebrate who we are, there must be some sort of awareness of who we were. And that is what makes this country of ours something worth celebrating. It isn’t our greatness. It isn’t whatever American Exceptionalism is. It certainly isn’t the fact that we spend more on our military than, not just anyone else, but everyone else.
What makes our country a great place is that we realize the terrible things we have done. We learn from our mistakes, our misbehaviors, our atrocities. We have beleaguered the poor, the minorities, the infirm. But we have confessed. We have repented. We continue to confess. We continue to repent. We live in a country where terrible things lose, where discrimination eventually dies, where the rights of the beat up, trampled on, the enslaved will eventually usurp the power of unfairness and corruption. It may not happen in one generation, or even two It is a long arc that our country is on, but it does bend towards goodness.
I live in a region of the country where the Confederate Flag is celebrated rather than condemned. But those who celebrate it now are fewer and fewer. Minorities make up the bulk of incarcerations and disproportionally sentenced for longer jail time. But we have elected our first African-American President. The debate over medical care seems heartless, even “mean.” But there is a movement towards understanding medical care as a human right. The State passes a stupid bathroom bill, but the LGBTQ community is gaining rights and public understanding. Women are still paid less than men. But my wife has a good job that allowed me to be the stay at home dad. The good doesn’t make the bad acceptable. It doesn’t cancel it out like some sort of math equation. But there is reason to believe, to hope, that our country is a great country because it is learning. Learning slowly. But learning.
Maybe historians of the future will look back at this time in our country and see confused, angry people who are losing the ability to tell truth from fiction. But I also believe they will see a people wake up again and calm down. Hysteria won’t live here for long.
I don’t know that our country is the best country in the world. By what criteria? By whose standards would such an evaluation be made? I do believe, however, that we are constantly improving. We are constantly treating our neighbors better. We are learning to love more deeply those who are other. This may not make us the bright shining city on a hill, but I think it does mean that today we do have something to celebrate.