This year has humbled me, each holiday that goes by feels like another jolting blow to the head. Past years’ celebrations seem shallow, farcical. No doubt my privilege and youth contributes to this phenomenon–but I am not alone in these revelations.
On MLK day, Twitter greeted me with the story of a Mississippi town referring to closures in observance of “Great Americans Day.” Though apparently this travesty had been on the books in Biloxi for awhile, this year was the first that they felt emboldened enough to advertise on national social media, or perhaps the first anyone bothered to notice. Disturbed by the transparent racism of bootstrapping a local holiday to erase Dr. King’s name, I remembered that as a child I knew the holiday as Lee/Jackson/King day. That’s what they actually called it.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, I reeled at thestandard “never again” recitations from all the usual sources–synagogues, Jewish philanthropic organizations, Jewish newspapers–few of which dared tiptoe into acknowledging the glaring likeness to the pre-Nazi era we now experience. (Note: I’m not talking about the righteous indignation from our community in response to the White House’s omission of Jews from its cursory acknowledgement of the occasion–a minor infraction compared to the litany of daily outrages.) When some of us nevertheless insist on pointing out the unyielding similarities between Trump and early Hitler, we are accused even by self-dubbed allies of using “charged” language, of “hurting the cause.” If you’ve heard of Godwin’s law, that concept comes into play here, something I plan to write about separately–but for now, the point is, “never again” is an empty phrase and an insult to the Six Million if we are “never again” willing to sound alarms before a Kristallnacht event.
And today, on America’s Independence Day, I woke up feeling silly for have ever bothered with this holiday. 36 years of fireworks, grilling, festive cupcake icing … and taking freedom completely for granted. Embarrassingly, my dearest associations with Independence Day have been breakup metaphors and my affinity for Bill Pullman’s alien-bashing speech in the 90s movie channeling the holiday. I worked several Fourths as a hostess and waitress at a tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, cheekily interpreting for dinner guests the meaning of the day for “we colonists,” even giving performances on the front porch, defying a dressed-up redcoat and expressing willingness to be dragged into the stocks for refusing loyalty to the King. Even wearing my shift and bonnet, at no time did I feel the gravity of the occasion. My most salient memory was spilling a pitcher of oily salad dressing on a man in a suit and a CIA hat, who became enraged and demanded that the restaurant buy him a new suit and pay a ton of money for his apparently-priceless hat.
And this year, you might as well take “patriotism” off the grill and let it rot. My recent experience of engaging with the right wing suggests that they believe they have a monopoly on patriotism. They dig their heels into what they deem “American exceptionalism” and accuse liberals of rejecting it, as traitors. This attitude betrays a complete lack of understanding of American exceptionalism, and hence results in a distorted patriotism that has in fact cast off what is exceptional about America, relegating us to the status of countless authoritarian civilizations throughout history, who bow to their kings and claim that they are better than everybody else on earth.
Here’s the thing, though. American exceptionalism is humility. Anyone acting like an arrogant arse in the name of American exceptionalism is not an American exceptionalist, nor is such a person particularly exceptional in any sense.
Despite our Founders’ undeniable chutzpah in rejecting a long-established monarchy, what they sought to do in that endeavor was to create a society based on humble leaders who serve the people, not the other way around. Just take a look at the words that started it all–the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776–
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed[.]”
The American revolution was a rebellion against the injustice of being ruled and harvested for resources while simultaneously silenced. The colonists, feeling dehumanized and stripped of their dignity, accepted that no system could extract human frailty from government–and created a novel system with multiple levels of checks and balances, a presumption that federal government could only exercise very specific powers the Constitution vested in it, and escape hatches for contemplated worst-case scenarios.
But the default setting of authoritarian leadership–and the false sense of security it conveys–dies hard. The Exodus story provides a powerful portrayal; the Jewish people hesitated to seek freedom for fear of death and other unknowns. Then when they at last achieved it, they were driven so crazy without constantly being told what to do that they made a golden calf to worship. Hashem is the ultimate authority–succumbing inappropriately to human authority, however, is such a natural thing to do that we must be prohibited in the strongest terms from idol worship. And in the U.S. revolution story, even where anti-monarchism and a humble government was the entire basis of that war, George Washington had to refuse a kingship after it was over.
If George Washington had lacked his famous humility and had instead been more of a, shall we say, Trumpian figure, there would be no American exceptionalism. America would likely have gone the way of it many predecessor societies with concentrated power, regimes that usually change only through violence.
A particularly galling irony is that the current American president–who lacks any humility whatsoever (please let there be SOME consensus on the obvious?)–has taken advantage of American exceptionalism to destroy it. The bully spouted brazen lies, promptly steamrolling anyone inclined toward humility. From the playbook of the world’s most successful and horrible tyrants, he capitalized on ordinary people’s anxieties to channel them into indignation, subjugating those with whom his insidious rhetoric resonated and catapulting himself into self-dubbed savior status. He manipulated us with a catchy smokescreen of making America great “again” into something it never was. An oppressive nationalistic government whose primary focus is keeping the powerful in power by any means necessary is antithetical to America, and utterly unexceptional among human civilizations.
In the days preceding this year’s celebration of the American Revolution, America’s downward spiral seems to have accelerated. Trump has, among other things, heated up his attempts to discredit the media–a move that would be straight up Hitlerian if it were not executed in such a bizarre, juvenile fashion. The National Rifle Association–the National Rifle Association–has now released an ad that paints as “the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites, and media elites.” This should terrify history scholars, who quickly recognize this rhetoric as the precursor to many a bloody coup.
This administration’s vengeful supporters are so preoccupied with their hatred of “elites” that they are willing to shed any pretense of policy or principle as long as a word or deed advances their goal of destroying their internal American enemy. To attack “liberals” and “the fake news media” is worth any price. Trump supporters have admitted this to me, no doubt emboldened by Trump’s toxic and shameless rhetoric.
Trump’s mob will indeed happily desecrate the Declaration of Independence itself. NPR has a tradition of reciting the Declaration of Independence every year on the Fourth of July, for reasons that should be obvious. Yesterday, it tweeted the entire text of the document–and some Trumpian snowflakes took umbrage. Apparently, Trump’s tyrannical tendencies remind his supporters enough of King George III to take the Declaration of Independence personally. It provoked responses such as this:
How lost is America’s soul when our president’s supporters take offense at our founding document because its acerbic callouts of an 18th century king remind them of him? A particularly triggering statement–“A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” If this hits too close to home for even his supporters, how far has America strayed from its roots?
I adore the America of humility, of equality, of the Statue of Liberty, where “alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.” But when I see an American flag on a house or a shirt or a hat, I don’t see the liberty and exceptional humility it is meant to symbolize–I see the arrogant America, the America that has coopted and twisted “exceptionalism” into “we* are better than everyone else because… we just are.” (* = “We” is often defined narrowly by this group of speakers, and excludes many American citizens.) I bought an American flag in an attempt to reclaim my America, but I haven’t had the nerve to fly it for fear someone may misconstrue it. The American flag strikes fear, not pride, in me.
All of this agony only proves that yesterday was the most important and unnerving Independence Day of my lifetime–and mostly, I tried to ignore the occasion and the glaring cognitive dissonance that accompanied it. History tells us loud and clear that the goodness of even a majority of people can easily fail to a power unbound by humility or decency, who unleashes the worst of humanity in a critical mass of others.
But in spite of myself, tiny glimmers of our country’s greater self seeped through yesterday.
I passed the morning lounging around in my Jon Ossoff shirt and drowning myself in Pokemon Go. I then changed into my Black Lives Matter shirt to take my very excited daughter to her friend’s pool. I’d like to say these style choices were an intentional reflection of the day, but they were more so a reflection of my lack of clean laundry–yet, it lifted my spirits a bit to clothe myself in messages of a brighter America.
Then, nearing sunset, our family saw a rainbow in a parking lot–HaShem’s gift of beauty and hope after forcing the world to its knees with His all-encompassing flood.
Inspired–and having recently learned that school was cancelled the next day–I decided on a whim to take Eden to 9:45 PM fireworks instead of putting her to bed. (By the way, I love having a husband who indulges my impulsivity as long as I don’t go completely off the rails). She in her red T-shirt with “LOVE” written in flag motif, and me in my BLM shirt, we whizzed down to my building in zero traffic. We parked and walked a half-mile to a completely-packed Centennial Olympic Park, quickly giving up trying to enter the actual park and instead plopping our blanket down in the middle of the street just as the fireworks began.
After the show ended, I had to carry an exhausted and painful-flip-flop-wearing Eden on my back uphill to my office. After a few grueling blocks, she remarked thoughtfully, “this is like the march,” she said.
“You mean the women’s march?” I confirmed.
My backache suddenly felt patriotic and purposeful–my daughter having connected this Independence Day moment to the brilliant showing of American solidarity reminded me that I need not spurn patriotism just because others have abused it and twisted it into arrogance. It was my love for America that spurred me to carry a backpack full of three-year-old all day that January morning in DC. It was my love for America that inspired me to DRAW SOMETHING (I don’t draw) to carry around on a sign at the Atlanta airport to protest the “travel ban,” yet another step on that Hitler-esque path of scapegoating. It was my love for America that pushed me to rouse all the passion within me to write and write and write about a nearby Congressional election I never believed could be won.
I have faith that our real, exceptional America still exists. The American ideals I love remain despite a very real attempt to quash those ideals through media threats, voter suppression, undermining facts, propaganda, calculated deterioration of discourse.
So, Americans, even if you spent July 4th in the shallow BBQ mentality (or depressed), there is still much time to be proud of your American humility. Read the Declaration of Independence (and this excellent Washington Post op-ed on it). Read Frederick Douglass’s July 4th speech, set during the darkness and shameful time where Americans owned slames.
And muster up the strength to forge on and bring our true America–of human connection, equality, liberty, and love–back to the surface.