Timing is everything.
In the spring of 1991, CBS was about to host the TV premiere of the Oscar-winning antiwar polemic Born on the Fourth of July when George H.W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm. Nervous executives panicked, deeming Oliver Stone’s portrait of Vietnam atrocities inappropriate to air during America’s latest adventure in foreign intervention. It would’ve been like promoting the grand opening of a cigar bar with a billboard graphically depicting a cancerous lung. They yanked the film from CBS’s schedule, delaying its debut until a year later, when the Gulf War had already become ancient history.
But if anyone found it paradoxical to air a critique of the country’s rah-rah spirit right as we were headed to war again, the opposite should hold true as well.
Celebrating America’s birthday right now—during one of the country’s absolute darkest moments—is like going to a cigar bar to commemorate an emphysema diagnosis. As the country reckons with its shameful past and piteous present, perhaps we should just skip this year’s Fourth of July festivities altogether.
Independence Day has always been a fraught holiday. As George Carlin memorably put it, America was founded by slaveholders who wanted to be free, and the Fourth of July marks the day those oxymorons got their wish. Still, this day has been reliably celebrated since its first anniversary in 1777, which featured a 13-gun salute, straight on through to the Coney Island hot-dog-eating theatrics of today. Each year, we make a show of patriotism and pretend at unity by getting a day off from our jobs, hanging out with friends, and scorching the sky with rockets’ red glare.
Woo! Yeah! It’s a Party in the U.S.A.
This year, however, things are different.
A day off doesn’t mean much for the 47 million people who lost their jobs over the last 14 weeks. Any friends and family getting together have to risk catching COVID-19 (or at the very least, Instagram scorn) to do so. Fireworks have already proven so popular with bored quarantiners that few people in any major city could possibly be clamoring for more. And of course, the staggering hypocrisy George Carlin joked about dovetails perfectly with America’s current racial discourse.
As the Black Lives Matter movement caught global fire following George Floyd’s killing by police six weeks ago, a critical mass of Americans belatedly started interrogating systemic racism. The ensuing agitation has brought about changes both cosmetic and otherwise and broadly raised awareness of how relics of our racist past still haunt us today. Congress is considering stripping Confederate generals’ names from our forts and bases, for instance, and NASCAR has banned the rebel flag. But racism’s roots in America run far deeper than the Civil War and its many echoes.
A tale of two Independence Days
Let’s be honest: The American Revolution happened at least partly to preserve slavery.
Although the British Empire didn’t pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act until 1807, the anti-slavery movement in England began around the same time as the American Revolution. In 1772, the Chief Justice of England ruled that Virginia slave James Somerset, who had escaped from his master during a visit to England, could keep his freedom. The judgment was widely misunderstood, however, to mean that England had abolished slavery outright. This rumor almost certainly reached America, and spooked its many plantation owners as to which way the wind was blowing. Independence from Britain would ensure, among other things, that the colonists could keep building their burgeoning country on the backs of slaves.
At the dawn of the Revolutionary War, in April 1775, relatively few colonists actually wanted total independence from Britain. Only one year later, though, what was once considered a radical idea became accepted as Common Sense, and the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
Imagine that: A year was all it took to change colonists’ minds about something that would completely alter the very idea of the country, and shed blood all over its landscape. Just one year.
Americans took much longer to come around to the idea of freeing the nation’s slaves.
The U.S. abolition movement started in 1830, and continued for 35 years and a brutal Civil War. Only on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, did Union general Gordon Granger announce federal orders to emancipate Texas, the last remaining state to hold slaves.
The entire country was finally free.
But the holiday commemorating this occasion, Juneteenth, has scarcely been acknowledged by more than a whisper on the national stage until just this year, when the date arrived precisely as white America bothered to learn it exists. Now that Juneteenth is on its way to becoming a federal holiday, it feels rather tone-deaf to put on the usual Macy’s-sponsored hullabaloo two weeks later for the other Day of Independence. A year of noting the Fourth with a somber tweet instead of a patriotic bacchanal might help put in perspective the disparity between how we’ve historically regarded the two holidays.
Of course, another reason to call off the Fourth this year is because it has never been more clear how not free we truly are.
A conditional freedom
One of America’s greatest virtues is its freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. That freedom seems tenuous at best, though, when protesters and journalists can be beaten by agents of the state for the sake of a presidential photo op. (Not to mention the hundreds of similar instances caught on camera in the past six weeks.)
Another freedom—the right to vote in democratic elections—has always been imperiled or nonexistent for some segments of the U.S. population. Voter suppression runs rampant in majority-Black areas throughout the country, in ways both subtle and blatant. But the coronavirus has made an increasingly desperate Republican Party give up the game entirely.
Back in March, following a (defeated) Democratic-led effort for reforms such as vote-by-mail, same-day registration, and early voting amid the onset of COVID-19, Donald Trump had this to say: “They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
It’s an open admission that the GOP fears any measure that allows more people to exercise their freedom to vote. Because the Department of Justice appears hell-bent on doing the president’s bidding of late, Attorney General Bill Barr has since come out aggressively against any measures that make it easier to vote during a pandemic. What kind of free country openly tries this hard to minimize how many of its citizens can vote?
Although Trump speaks often of his so-called silent majority, a term he cribbed from Richard Nixon, he is ever more out of step with what most Americans actually want. We are a nation currently led by minority rule, part of a continuum that stretches back to when America was still governed by slaveholders who wanted to be free.
The fetishization of freedom
The freedoms secured on Independence Day, however, mean much more to Americans than just the right to vote and to protest without losing an eye to rubber bullets. A certain subset of citizens has integrated the idea of freedom so thoroughly into their identity, they’ve warped its meaning entirely. They consider constitutional freedom a license to do whatever they please, whenever they please, because, hey, “This is America.” As though rules and regulations were for losers and weaklings.
This fetishization of freedom is killing us.
Some people so hate the idea of being told what to do, they resent being told how to save their own lives, not to mention the lives of those around them. The same instinct that led citizens to adamantly resist wearing seat belts has now manifested in a refusal to wear masks. (“I will not be muzzled like a mad dog,” one Florida man said recently at a city meeting.)
A measure of reluctance to follow pandemic guidelines is understandable. There was some confusion early on when, because of a supply shortage, people were asked to leave mask wearing to medical professionals only. As scientists have learned more about the virus, though, and supplies have increased, a consensus has emerged: face masks are critical to prevention. Yet even with so little downside to wearing them—it feels weird and looks silly, end of list—many Americans are dead set against doing so, because it impinges on their supposedly God-given freedom.
“People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do,” Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine told ABC News to explain why he walked back a previous mask requirement as state businesses reopened.
But part of living in any society is being told what to do sometimes. Nobody complains that stop lights impinge on their freedom. They’re just a safety regulation we all accept as necessary. Because safety regulations are in no way incompatible with freedom. When people complain that rules about masks violate their constitutional rights, they’re mostly just allergic to being inconvenienced.
Sometimes, however, their intentions are more malevolent.
The same resistance to being told what to do by the government is what politicians count on in their ongoing project of positioning deregulation as a virtue in and of itself. Who cares that deregulation leads to predatory lending and endless environmental crises? At least those fat cats in Washington aren’t telling you what you can’t do!
Hostility to regulation is also why anything less than unfettered access to semiautomatic weapons—no matter how many mass shootings we must endure—is seen by many as anti-American oppression.
Our perversion of freedom into sanctioned solipsism is currently helping to kill Americans at a rate of well over 500 people a day. I see no reason for celebrating that freedom until we can act a little more humble about it.
Make America exceptional again
Nothing seems to tamp down that ingrained sense of American exceptionalism, though, even as we grapple with devastating racial, economic, and health crises all at once.
America is indeed an incredible country, despite all of the flaws I’ve just mentioned. Our contributions to technology, arts, sports, science, and medicine have reverberated indelibly around the globe. We have been a superpower the world looks to during turbulent times—and we have been a crucial ally for many.
But you can’t judge a country by its best days only.
America is also exceptional at suppressing its ugliness. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, and the FBI’s killing of Fred Hampton are just two of the myriad domestic incidents you’re less likely to discover in an American history class. And good luck learning anything about the U.S. penchant for covertly overthrowing governments abroad either. It would be wrong only to judge America by its flaws and atrocities, but it’s about time we more openly acknowledged them. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains steam, we need to stop conflating criticism of America with hatred for America.
The unvarnished truth is that America has never looked less exceptional on the world stage than it does right now. We are currently a cautionary tale, a worst-case scenario. We have failed so thoroughly in our response to COVID-19, while deflecting all the blame to China, that the European Union won’t allow us anywhere near it.
This is a time for reflection and emergency action, not celebration. This year, let’s sit out our most patriotic holiday until we actually earn it.