Oh god, it’s the 4th of July…
This was my first thought upon waking up. National holidays on a whole make me go “…meh”, mostly because I do think I’m happiest not necessarily engaged in social rituals, but doing my own thing. But there seems to be something about nationalist holidays in particular that kind of give me pause (and this does extend outside of the American context–I may like Bastille day because the French Revolution is my personal favorite, but that does not excuse the legislation by France to remove “race” as a concept of national reality). It is in the American context, that I am most embedded, and thus, it is the American context that largely fills my mode of inquiry.
I don’t find anything wrong with socialized celebration. If we take considerations of nationalism as a new-age form of religiosity, then the particulars of national holidays like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, d-Day, amongst others appear like feast days for Saints in Catholicism or games and festivals for the Greco-Roman Pantheon. Ritual days help us, as a nation, balance the line between producing and assisting the world, and relaxation for ourselves. Thus, people use the 4th of July as a moment to collectively effervesce over what the nation has done that is good, and re-affirm its singular commitment to progress.
I think that’s all fine and good. In an age where commodification is increasingly the name of the game, I would be the last person to suggest moments of celebration ought to be removed. I would say, however, that the mode of celebration is something we should briefly consider. And here, the singularity of American exceptionalism falls into the line of fire. As an example, I’ll borrow a quote from the beginning of the first episode of the Newsroom: “America is so star spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world who has freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. UK France Italy Spain Australia Belgium has freedom! 207 sovereign states in the world, something like 180 of them have freedom”. Yet, even if only in a troll-sense, the internet seems to have this manifest fixation on American freedom as exceptional and something that is exclusive to living in the USA. That is to say, living anywhere else leads down some dark road to fascism.
Part of this is obviously historical. John Winthrop, one of the most famous Puritans to settle along our Northeast coast popularized this sentiment in the 17th century, by using a famous phrase from the New Testament: “For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of the people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and by-word through the world”.
This is a sentiment to which American political and social actors have held, with seemingly little consideration between the relationship of the religious and the secular in this context. John Winthrop was speaking about the particulars of a Puritan set of colonies seeking to demonstrate the religious value of their society, and not any larger discussion about freedom in a republic or social democracy. As an example of why this distinction matters, Winthrop himself supported the slave policies that brought much economic wealth to the Northern colonies (a process that is indirectly traced by Craig Wilder’s book on slavery and the Ivy League). It has taken different forms in different moments throughout American history, but the same basic idea of our being somewhat “special” has continued: Manifest Destiny, JFK’s speech of the same name, and our continual involvement in foreign affairs. It is something that is tacitly enforced every time I see a friend talk about America as some vital truth to the world, either by being a direct model to the world, or by “admitting” to our faults, and asserting that we are continually trying to improve upon them.
It is also a form of historical erasure, one in which we enforce our productive results as “progress” without really analyzing their drawbacks. It is true we were crucial in defeating the Nazis at the end of WWII, but that was over sixty years ago, in a war where we tacitly endorsed another incredibly powerful dictator, and provided the only use of atomic warfare in human history. Oh, also the fire bombings in Dresden and other civilian-only territories in Germany were horrific . We might justify them as necessary, but then we ought to understand ourselves as bearers of imperial powers, rather than benign agents, moved by the ruling hand of God. In the words of the Athenians: “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” .
I propose that, as we celebrate today, we should continue to engage in deconstructing this notion of exceptionalism. The sentence ought not be “We have our problems but…”; it should be “we have our problems”. It is okay for a country to have problems–there is no need to pretend they don’t exist, or that our vitality or existence depends on a demonstration that these problems are minute comparatively, or that there is something special about the “American” engagement with them. A brief treatment of either present-day, or historical issues can show that we’re not better or worse than any other country.
Yet, even the best engaged of citizens are continually trapped in these larger structural patterns of refusing the connection between the everyday with the past. It may be true that we are working to rectify our issues, but I hardly know of a country for which this is not the case. The emphasis of sexual assault as intrinsic to “Other” world countries, for example, undermines the activist efforts of groups like the Gulabi Gang . The spotlight of Russian’s LGBTQ oppression, although heinous, ignores the open question Hobby Lobby Vs. Burwell is now presenting for groups who wish to discriminate based on orientations, or even the violence transgender people face on a day-to-day basis. Reflecting on segregation as a moment of our historical past implies its resolution, and continues to perpetrate the myth of a post-racial America. And I think each of these moments is demonstrative of a simple truth: we’re not exceptional. We are a country, one where the standard of living is reasonably decent, but one that also contributes to a plethora of problems historical and present.
So enjoy the day, and be happy about living in a polity in which you hold citizenship (if you do! Remember that a large number of people who live and work here don’t have that privilege). But please, please don’t feel some need to impose on this day mythical conceptions rooted in fundamentally religious claims. Or at least, don’t tell people who disagree with you that they can leave.
–That’s actually a pretty ironic response for someone who likes emphasizing freedom of speech and debate, but we’ll leave it at that.