Saturday, July 6, 2019
July 6-7, 2019: The 4th of July in 2019
[In honor of the 4th of July—a holiday that, contrary to certain presidential proclamations, we’ve been celebrating for a good while now—this week’s series has highlighted various historical and cultural contexts for July 4. Leading up to this special weekend post on the 4th in 2019!]
On what’s consistently true of the holiday, what feels new, and what to do about it.
I’ve written a lot about critical patriotism over the last few years—hell, I even published a book largely dedicated to the concept—but even I have to admit that the other kind of patriotism, the easier and simpler and more jingoistic kind, will always be with us as well. And honestly that’s okay—while I believe critical patriotism is vitally important, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with more straightforward celebrations of the best of our national community and identity (at least not if they are complemented by expressions of that more critical type as well). I understand Samuel Johnson’s point about “the last refuge of a scoundrel” and all, but I also think there’s a natural and human thing about wanting to be part of a community, wanting to feel good about that community (not blindly or unthinkingly good, but still good), and wanting to come together to express that attitude every now and then. In that sense, I suppose 4th of July celebrations are really a bit like one very big block party—and as long as all the neighbors are invited and get to partake fully and equally in the good eats and the fireworks and whatnot, I’m all for a very big block party every so often.
But what happens when that block party, despite having taken place every year for, y’know, centuries, is suddenly organized by that one new neighbor who fancies himself the community dictator and pretends that the whole party is in his honor? Well, even though we all know better, it’s hard not to feel that the block party has distinctly shifted in tone, turned into something uglier and darker through his presence and influence. Or, if we’re feeling a bit more cynical, like he has revealed sides to the party—and to the block—that we had managed not to focus on or feature at the parties (at least not for a good while). So while Trump was of course as nonsensical and a-historical as ever when he proclaimed this year’s July 4th celebrations as something new or different or Trump-tastic (I’m not gonna link to stories about this bs a second time, but the link is up in the intro above if you want to read more), I can’t say that he hasn’t revealed something uncomfortable about the holiday, just as he has revealed such things about the nation. Nor can I say that I’ll be able to cheer along to anthems and fireworks this year (I’m writing this post in March, although I know it’ll air post-holiday) with nearly the same enthusiasm as I have in years past. In many ways we’re living in Trump’s America, which does indeed make this Trump’s 4th (if not in the ways he’d like it to be, not in either case).
So what do we do, those of us who don’t want to move out of the neighborhood and don’t want to cede the block party over to the neighborhood bully and his allies? That’s not a rhetorical question—I’m not gonna come up with some definitive answer in this paragraph, and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, my fellow AmericanStudiers. Earlier in the week I mentioned the idea of sharing texts like Douglass’s speech as part of July 4th festivities, and I do think there’s real value in highlighting both patriotic and critically patriotic voices and words on the holiday—not abandoning the anthem or the Declaration or the like, but complementing them with voices and perspectives like Douglass’s. But of course that also can feel like preaching to the choir—and while I don’t think I can in any context preach to Trump or his hardest-core supporters, I would like to imagine 4th of July celebrations that can both celebrate America without being Trump-tastic and critique America without entirely losing large swaths of my fellow Americans. So how do we, to coin a phrase, make the 4th of July great again? How do we reclaim this holiday for the best versions of our nation and of patriotism? Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts, all!
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?