We just celebrated July the 4th in America, our Independence Day, and if you spend any time on social media you know there is a battle for the soul of that day happening in some circles in the nation.
In some groups, the competition seems to be who can me the MOST patriotic. Who can have the MOST traditional American holiday and proclaim the most pride in our nation? Who can look beyond the troubles of the day to see the fundamental good at the heart of America and celebrate with the most exuberance?
In other circles there seems to be a competition to see who can have the most woke 4th of July? Who can center indigenous people most profoundly? Who can hate fireworks the most? Who will be the first to post “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass? There’s a race to see who can demean the holiday the most and point out all the flaws that hound America.
Now, I am not going to give you a “woe is us” that we are so divided monologue. We know we’re divided. You don’t need me to tell you that we live in polarized times.
But it’s a hard pill for me to swallow because a lot of people I know seem to fight so hard to fit into one of those two camps. And there seems to be an expectation that people fall into one or the other. But the truth is, I don’t. I don’t feel comfortable in either of those circles. And the older I get the more uncomfortable the Fourth of July is for me.
On the one hand, I am absolutely all about being honest about our history and how we have lived up to the promises of our nation. If you are going to read the Declaration of Independence on July, the 4th you have to acknowledge that the Declaration’s list of grievances did not necessarily paint the prettiest picture of the Founders. The 27th grievance in the Declaration is “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” From DAY ONE we were worried about slave rebellions and the necessary dehumanization of indigenous people so much that we were ready to start a war over them. The literal words we used to announce that we were a free people who believed in liberty and were done with tyranny were ensconced in the trappings of racism and inequality. We didn’t start out well.
And it’s not like that was just a little trip up. We slaughtered native populations, enslaved Black people and set up the 3/5 Compromise and established structures that would enshrine systemic racism for generations to come. And that’s not even acknowledging the gender issue. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men were created equal, he wasn’t using “man” as a universal place holder – he meant men.
So it’s not surprising when people find purchase in Douglass’s words, “Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.” We set out to found a nation on equality and liberty, and we founded it on the back of slavery.
But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. If you are unaware that this nation’s treatment of Black people and People of Color, women, Native people, LGBTQ people, and disabled people is historically appalling, then there’s not much I can do because you are willfully ignorant.
There are ideas here worth salvaging. And I’m not so determined to be the right kind of critic that I will forget those ideas. I’m not passing any purity tests today.
It’s so easy to forget while we’re critiquing the US that we are mad about injustice for a variety of reasons – first and foremost, because it is unjust, but secondly because it’s not what we were promised. That’s the other deep cut. It’s not just that we have problems with race, gender, class, and a whole host of other issues – it’s that we were supposed to be better. And that’s where I find myself in this conversation.
Because, the truth is, I believe in the ideals of America. I believe in them with all of my heart. I believe that each of you deserves to live out your truth, pursuing life, liberty, and happiness for no other reason than your humanity makes you valuable. I believe we are all equal and have inherent dignity. I believe all those things they told us in grade school that America was all about. I have never let go of that. I believe people matter. I believe in agency and the ability to speak your mind to your neighbor and to institutions of power. All that crap about justice? I 100% buy into it. And that’s why this is such a fraught holiday for me.
In my rhetorical theory seminar we talk about the difference between truth and reality. And most of my students don’t differentiate between the two all that much. But for me, the Fourth of July is just a huge reminder that truth and reality are not the same thing. Because I believe it is true that all people are equal. I am not a big believer in universal truths, but if there are any, that has to be one of them. All people, just by virtue of the fact that they are people, are equal. That is an inalienable truth. It is not, however, reality. In reality, people are discriminated against all the time, and prejudices of all unreasonable manner oppress people every day.
I think this is the big dividing line between the two camps I was talking about earlier, if I can speak in bold strokes for a minute. One group sees only the truths in America and is willing to ignore the reality in order to cling to those truths and keep them pure. And one group is so upset by the reality in America that the truth seems impossible and not worth mentioning.
For me, the reason the reality of America is so upsetting is because it is in direct opposition to the truth. A truth we claimed for ourselves in the very beginning. I, like the Founders before me, hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people 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 people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
We have the right to live equally and free and to be able to live our lives as we see fit. And the whole point of a government is to make sure that happens. And a government is only powerful because I say it is. And if that government stops doing its job, I can do something about it. Because our safety and happiness matter.
I absolutely buy into all of that. It is the truth that lies at the heart of this nation. But it is not the reality. The reality is structural oppression and a government that is more interested in military and corporate well-being than my own and the constant etching away at my ability to do anything about it.
And it’s the betrayal of that truth that is so upsetting. Reality is harsh enough to begin with. When there is such a big fissure between truth and reality it is jarring. So I guess it makes sense that a lot of people would want to pick a side and stick with it.
But if we want to fix things, I don’t think you can stay on one side or the other. If you truly believe in the truth of America, you have to acknowledge the reality so you can strive for achieving that promise. If you see the reality of America but are not inspired, or even angered, by the truth, then there is no reason to fight for a change.
So, for me, the words that most embody the Fourth of July aren’t from our Founders telling us about the beginning of America. They aren’t the political barnburners that sing the praises of our nation. They are the ones that seek to reconcile the truth and the reality of America.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the United States. He was in office for less than a year before he was assassinated. His killer, Dan White, argued he was suffering from depression, which lead him to eat too much junk food, and he shot and killed Milk. Instead of being convicted of murder, White was convicted of manslaughter and only sentenced to five years. It was a miscarriage of justice all the way through. But in his time Milk made his mark on the political landscape of the US, even though he was just a local official. Milk’s “Hope” speech did just what the title implied – it gave hope to people who had been left out of the American narrative for years.
Milk gave us the template to follow for years to come. He said, “Unless you have dialogue, unless you open the walls of dialogue, you can never reach to change people’s opinion. In those two weeks, more good and bad, but more about the word homosexual and gay was written than probably in the history of mankind. Once you have dialogue starting, you know you can break down prejudice.”
Milk argued that what people needed was hope. He said, People had been suffering in the margins for so long, and what they needed, and what he wanted to offer, was that there was the possibility for progress. He said, “I remember the lack of hope, and our friends can’t fulfill it. I can’t forget the looks on faces of people who have lost hope, be they gay, be they seniors, be they blacks looking for an almost impossible job, be they Latins trying to explain their problems and aspirations in a tongue that’s foreign to them. I Personally will never forget that people are more important than buildings.”
“I use the word “I” because I am proud. I stand here tonight in front of my gay sisters, brothers and friends, because I’m proud of you. I think it’s time that we have many legislators who are gay and proud of that fact and do not have to remain in the closet. I think a gay person upfront will not walk away a responsibility and be afraid of being tossed out of office.
And hope is powerful. Hope keeps people afloat. Hope is what keeps people from cynicism and defeat. He says, “And the young gay people in Altoona, Pennsylvanias, and the Richmond, Minnesotas, who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only are the gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the “us-es.” The “us-es” will give up.”
He concludes, “And if you help elect the Central Committee and other offices, more gay people– that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. So if there’s a message I have to give, it is that I found one overriding thing about my personal election. It’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light. And you and you and you– you have to give people hope. Thank you very much.”
Milk is acknowledging the reality in America. There are problems with race, gender, sexuality and age. But there is hope. There is hope that the truths in America are there, within sight. Is it sentimental, and a bit naïve? Maybe. But it’s what I’m looking for on my Independence Day.
But the message that rings most true to me on July 4th is probably the most famous speech of the 20th century, MLK’s “I Have a Dream.”
King said in 1963,
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
MLK begins with a promise – a truth. Freedom for all. But then acknowledges the reality of his world – that truth has been broken.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
MLK is fighting to reconcile truth and reality. Until the reality of the nation matches its truths there will be no rest.
But to fight that fight, he has to fully acknowledge the actual realities: He says,
“And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating for whites only. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
A truth that does not grapple with reality is a cheap truth, a sham. In order to be true to America the realities must be addressed.
And so he tells us he has a dream. And dream where people are equal and free. And dream where people can meet each other as brothers and sisters and not be afraid. But it is important to acknowledge his language – this is a dream. It is not the reality. But he believes it is possible. It is something perhaps to come. It is the truth he believes in. The truth he hopes to see.
He says, “And when this happens , and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
This, to me, gets at the heart of the Fourth of July. I am not going to blindly extol the virtues of America as if she is faultless. I am not a nationalist, and I don’t believe my country is perfect and should be worshiped. But I’m also not going to get into a competition to be the most critical of her obvious and truly problematic flaws.
There are valuable truths to celebrate on the Fourth of July. And if the reality doesn’t match those truths, then that gives us something to work toward, not a reason to shut down.
So it’s okay. You can be critical and hopeful at the same time. Just because there is a cleavage between America’s truth and reality doesn’t mean you have to just love it or just be angry. If you’re so inclined, you could probably pull off both at the same time. But that requires teasing out some complex histories and emotions. Be ready to do some emotional labor.
But for me that tension is important. It drives me to work for something better. Because I believe in better. So happy Independence Day. Join me as I celebrate the truth and work for a better reality.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.