How to “Celebrate” This Independence Day

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US Sherman Tank (Wikimedia Commons)

We carried you in our arms / on Independence Day, / and now you’d throw us all aside / and send us on our way…

“Tears of Rage” by Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel

NBC News: Tanks being shipped to Washington D.C. for the Independence Day celebration.

The idea of “new!’ WWII era tanks shuttling down The Mall in D.C. toward the Lincoln Memorial conjures up nothing more starkly than an invasion. * Yes, other liberal republican democracies have them (e.g., France, where the Bastille Day celebrations of a few years ago are said to have inspired our fearless leader), and they are not unknown in our history (e.g. the end of the 1991 Gulf War). But this one feels different. It just does.

Many genuine journalists, all of whom work in print media, have rediscovered a timely quote by George Orwell on this matter:

A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is, ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me,’ like the bully who makes faces at his victim.

Orwell’s sentiments here in his essay “England Your England” need to be read along with his musings on the difference between “patriotism” and “nationalism.” Patriotism, for Orwell, centers on a genuine love of one’s country — its people, its places, its customs and institutions. Nationalism, however, is defensive and militaristic, inseparable from the desire for power:

The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

(On this definition, President Trump is not a nationalist: he is the nation itself. L’etat, c’est lui.)

One way of reading this is that The United States of America, about to celebrate its inception with a display of raw firepower before its orange emperor, has crossed the Rubicon and passed from a nation of patriots to a murder of nationalists. I think this judgment is oversimplified. There has always been a strain of nationalism in The United States, and it is expressed in the guise of “American Exceptionalism.”

Exceptionalism is a bipartisan notion: it looms large in Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and Ronald Reagan’s wistfulness about “A City on a Hill”, but also in Barack Obama’s claim that he is “exceptionalist to the core” and Madeleine Albright’s braggadocio about the USA being “the indispensable nation.” The difference between Trump and the latter three is a difference in degree, but degree on a galactic scale. Leftists who ignore the fact that differences in degree can be virtually differences in kind should take note: a Biden presidency may be bad, but it is not catastrophic, as would be a Trump second term (the first was catastrophic enough). But it’s important to also realize that the xenophobic hot mess we find ourselves in is not sui generis.

Jill Lepore, in her new book This America: the Case for the Nation notes that while European liberal democracies are “nation-states”, with the sense of national-cultural-ethnic belonging among a people being prior to the establishment of a state, the USA is a “state-nation”, where the revolution and adoption of the Constitution made US natives a nation. This is an important perception, rooted in the oft-noted observation that the United States is a “nation of ideas” rather than prior shared sentiment.

But this is what makes American nationalism so dangerous. “Ideas” are usually supposed to have universal validity. Thus “the American way of life”, “the American dream”, etc., are often assumed by Americans to be not only valid in all places and all times, but the kind of thing that everyone aspires to, or should aspire to. This is a recipe for a covert (and not-so-covert) kind of imperialism, albeit a presumptively beneficent one. The United States has spread this beneficence all over the world, from Central America to Vietnam to the Middle East, by bombing their residents into gratitude.

It was not inevitable that the Independence Day celebrations in D.C. would morph into a scene of leader-worship more at home in North Korea or Nuremburg. But neither is it unthinkable. Exceptionalism dies hard and makes all sort of domination possible. We live in a time that whole groups of people are being “erased” from the sphere of proper dignity: refugees at the southern border, both urban and rural poor people whether black or white, women who have been assaulted by powerful men, transmen and transwomen who have disappeared from federal government websites. It is hard to celebrate patriotically, in Orwell’s sense, in this thick humid fog of nationalism. So here are a few suggestions for a counter-celebration of July 4, Independence Day 2019.

If you are religious, go to worship. In an earlier essay in Medium, I wrote of the work of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to oppose the Nazis, primarily by reminding the German Church that its identity was constituted as Church, not as German. Injustice and domination can be opposed only from a standpoint that is both firm and a countervailing power to “the powers and principalities.” This standpoint need not be a theological one: a kind of civic friendship based on a shared commitment to a common good will work just as well. But if you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever, gather with your church, synagogue, mosque, sangha, etc., and realize that your nation, however worthy of your allegiance, stands under some kind of judgment external to it.

In my Episcopal Christian tradition the community of the church is a liturgical gathering. It is centered on worship, orthopraxy before orthodoxy. There is an American flag flying outside the cathedral, alongside the banner of the Episcopal Church. But there is no American flag inside the church (unlike many other Christian houses of worship, both Catholic and Protestant). This affirms that, for the Christian, the people of God is the true and ultimate community, not the people of the nation — a notion that in some, maybe even most, Evangelical Protestant communities has been obscured. Nationalism has no home in the sanctuary. Go there if you can, and foster the spirit of sanctuary, in short supply in the nation these days.

Be conspicuously absent. Avoid, this year, public demonstrations of fealty to the nation, even if you justifiably feel patriotic-in-opposition. The American Republic has been colonized by scoundrels and fools. This may have, to some degree, always been the case, but it is off the scale now. Do not acknowledge the noise of the not-very-solemn assemblies this year. Quietly resist. No fireworks.

Make noise with subtle power. Write your representatives in government, even if — especially if — you’d be preaching to the choir. Make it known to them what you think about all this violent pageantry, this fawning attention to the narcissist-in-chief and his corporate and senatorial enablers. Pour a cup of tea (or wine) and fire up Gmail. It will not be a world-historical undertaking, but every little bit helps.

Read rebelliously. A few suggestions:

1. Political Philosophy: Getting a handle on the notion of “politics” is a tall order, and one that is never really completed. Still, investing time to understand, say, Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, Marx, Rawls, Dewey, Arendt et. al. will reveal to you that there are many options for living in public, many of which are scarcely visible in these pallid times. Contrary to Margaret Thatcher, there are always alternatives. And knowing them gives substance to the political imagination, and hence to action.

2. History: It is not always written by the victors. Critical studies of American History, such as Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly or Jill Lepore’s These Truths can be eye opening by contradicting all manner of “official narratives”, whether Conservative or Liberal or whatever. For all its sloppiness and polemical one-sidedness, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is an essential work for critical reading. It’s aim was to up-end the standard exceptionalist narrative of US History, and for all its flaws (and there are many of them) it did its work well.

3. The Political Novel: There are the usual cases — Orwell’s 1984, the more timely Brave New World by Huxley, and the even more timely The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood. But other novels, not usually considered overtly “political” in focus, contain a plenitude of socio-political insight. Anna Karenina and Sense and Sensibility anticipate many of the concerns of feminism, first to third waves. The Great Gatsby, besides being one of the best-written American novels, is a sociological tract in disguise, portraying the interplay between the old and new rich in the Buchanans and Gatsby, the petty bourgeois Nick, and the working class Myrtle and George. And Herman Melville’s entire oeuvre, from Moby Dick to The Confidence Man to “Bartleby”, can be viewed as an elegiac meditation on what he took to be the doomed greatness of the American experiment.

Have a happy Independence Day. In resistance to it.

*UPDATE: It seems that the tanks will not roll but will be displayed on flatbed trucks by the Lincoln Memorial. Evidently someone or someones in the military put the kibosh on it. A small act of resistance, but one nonetheless. The spectacle will be bad enough…..

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