I’m sitting here working on this episode on July 4th, writing and getting ready to record in the next few days so I can post on Wednesday, and I admit I have some conflicted feelings. July the 4th has been one of my favorite days for many, many years. I have loved Independence Day for most of my life. That’s because, for all of its faults, I have been one of those people who deeply loved my country for all of my life.
But recent years have made this love feel tainted, I guess. I have always known about my country’s problematic (to put it INCREDIBLY lightly) history, but the last few years that history seems to have taken on new wings. I suppose it speaks to my privilege that I thought we had ever moved beyond any of that history, and I am owning that now, but what does that mean for my relationship with my country? Can I still say I love something so deeply flawed? Is patriotism a right preserved for the privileged few? What does Independence Day mean to me these days?
So, if you’ll indulge me, instead of looking at a current or historical event, we’re going to get personal today. I want to talk about my feelings about my country, patriotism, and celebrating Independence Day in the 21st century.
First, I want to tell you about the day I became a cynic.
I know most people become cynics over a period of time – it is a long, drawn out process. But I can identify the specific day that my cynicism began. It was a transformative day.
I was in fourth grade. It was Patriotic Day at school. I was in Mrs. Sakamoto’s class. And my life changed irrevocably.
When I was in fourth grade, we missed a bunch of school days for bad weather. As in all places, Texas mandates how many days you have to be in school to complete a school year. So, that year, we had to make up some school days on some Saturdays.
When we had school days on Saturdays it was pretty much a joke at the elementary school level. It was just days of fun activities and school assemblies and music and art projects – but not the kind of music and art projects that lead to any kind of introspection or understanding of the arts – the kind that keep kids busy and leave them with something that will look just like everybody else’s and hang in the school hallway for a week.
One of these Saturdays was designated “Patriotic Day.” Now, this could have been interesting and provocative. We could have spent the day studying history and talking about America’s founding and its Enlightenment roots or any number of other things that are important to shaping an understanding of America and its history. But we didn’t do that. It was kitschy and superficial through and through. We were supposed to wear red, white, and blue and we spent the day in our classrooms coloring pictures of the flag and listening to platitudes about how America was the greatest country in the world, with no background, context, or support for any of these claims, and then we went to music class where we practiced singing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American” so we could all do it together as a school at the assembly at the end of the day.
Looking back, it was state sponsored propaganda.
At any rate, towards the end of the school day we were lining up to go to the big assembly where the whole school was going to go to one place and sing some patriotic songs and listen to the principal talk about how lucky we were to be Americans, and Mrs. Sakamoto was handing out these little flags for us to wave during the event. Every student was supposed to have one of these little, cheap plastic flags so we could fill the room with our American pride. She handed mine to me and I looked at it and noticed something odd. And I glanced at the flags that all of my classmates had and saw the same thing and thought, well, that’s weird.
So I said, “Mrs. Sakamoto. It’s Patriotic Day, right? We’re supposed to be celebrating everything American and supporting America, right?” And she kind of muttered a half-hearted yes because she was busy, and I was bothering her. But I continued. “So why are we waving flags that were made in China?”
And she stopped in her tracks. And a few of my classmates giggled. And a lot of them stopped what they were doing and stared, waiting to hear what she would say. Then she just shook her head and said, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
And that’s it. That’s the day I began my journey to cynicism. I felt my idealism start to waiver in that moment, right then and there. I was looking for an explanation. I wanted to know why our celebration of America was couched in Chinese manufacturing and to be blown off because I was a kid indicated one of a few things: possibly my teacher didn’t know; the explanation would ruin the day; or they thought I was too stupid to understand, in which case why were we having Patriotic Day if I wasn’t smart enough to understand it?
But the thing is, Mrs. Sakamoto, you were right – I DID understand it when I got older. I understood about cheap foreign manufacturing and how the United States takes advantage of a lack of labor laws to buy lots of low-priced foreign goods and how places like China and Thailand can outpace us in manufacturing by exploiting their workforce and we eat it up by pouring money into their economy. And I take part in that all the time by buying cheap foreign goods instead of insisting on goods that were made in places that have labor laws AT LEAST equivalent to the U.S, which, let’s face it, aren’t that great (hello, minimum wage).
And nobody explained that to me at Patriotic Day in fourth grade, but nobody had to. When I got blown off for asking why we were waving Chinese flags at our big assembly to celebrate America I knew right then and there that this wasn’t about the ideals of America at all. This was about something else entirely. And I didn’t know why at the time, but it made me uncomfortable. I realized THAT DAY that all the flag-waving and song-singing and red, white, and blue clothes had little to do with actually believing in what America stood for, and more to do with looking like you believed in what America stood for. And it was a profound realization for me, and it stuck with me.
That’s a lot for a fourth grader to carry. So I just didn’t think about it for the most part. You can compartmentalize a lot to save yourself some worry. But that memory was seared into my brain and the older I got the more I realized just how much it had affected me.
But the thing is, it didn’t stop me from loving my country. If anything, it encouraged me to find a more honest love for my country. I wanted to move beyond the flag-waving and the sequined-hats and shirts and find a real patriotism. I believed America was great, but I didn’t want a propagandized version of greatness.
So what, then, was so special about this place?
And what I came up with was ideas and institutions.
From what I could tell it seemed that this was a nation founded on ideas. I didn’t understand when I was young that America was very much an Enlightenment experiment, so I didn’t know where those ideas came from – but I did understand the basics of our founding documents. I understood that we held some truths to be self-evident – that is, they just WERE. They were so true and so clear you could just SEE them to be true. And that is that everybody has the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that seemed profound to me. It’s just OBVIOUS that we all have the same rights to live, to live freely, and to chase our dreams.
And I understood we set up a really creative system to try and enshrine those ideas. We set up a government with three branches and a system of checks and balances that, if run correctly, would protect those ideas, and keep itself in check. I understood we had things like free speech, a free press, and freedom of religion that would counteract a powerful state and keep those ideas not just enshrined in the government, but alive in the people as well.
And over the years I became a special kind of patriot. I wasn’t the flag-waving, song-singing performative patriot. And I wasn’t the American Exceptionalism, this is the greatest country in the world, love it or leave it kind of patriot. I became devoted to an idea. An idea of a country that maybe never was, and maybe never could be, but that I saw woven throughout our history in the story of every reformer who wanted something more – I became devoted to THAT America – the America that my heroes of history wanted. I believed in ideas. I believed in institutions. But I didn’t have a lot of confidence in people.
But the last few years have been really rough on my idealism. I have come to grips with the fact that America, even my idealistic one, doesn’t exist without slavery. There literally is no story of America with the brutal kidnapping, torture, and enslavement and Black people. And America is still dealing with that fact.
And Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal.” When I was young, maybe fourth grade again, I was told that “men” was just the way they referred to everyone back then and it meant all people. I learned when I got older that was a lie. “Men” has never been universal. “Men” has always meant specifically “men.” When the founding fathers wrote “all men are created equal” they had no intentions of including women in that understanding of equality. Women would remain politically voiceless for almost 150 years before they got the vote, and to this day have not been guaranteed equal rights in the Constitution because even now in the 21st century the Equal Rights Amendment is considered controversial.
It took until just a few weeks ago for the country to decide that you shouldn’t be able to fire someone just because they are gay or transgender.
I have long thought America was special because of its institutions, but now I know about things like institutional sexism and racism. When the problems are systemic it becomes harder and harder to be an idealist. And when the institutions show themselves for what they really are – bastardized by corporate and party money and power, it is hard to have that idealistic love for the system of government that was designed so long ago. Political scientists have been warning us for a long time that we don’t live in a democratic republic anymore – we live in an oligarchy. And while there have been studies since that original 2014 piece that made that claim which have critiqued it, nobody has denied the effect of money in politics. Political parties have as much if not more power than the institutions of government in which they serve, and corporate or special interests guide those party decisions.
I believed so much in ideas and institutions. But they are lost in corruption and hard to find amidst history and practice.
And the last 3-4 years have been especially difficult. We have seen white supremacy take over our political discourse in open, unabashed ways. We elected a man who openly admitted to sexually assaulting women to the highest office in the land. What does that say about how we value women? We have so rejected reason and rationality that science itself is becoming an unacceptable form of proof in some political circles. We have embraced authoritarianism. We have completely mangled the constitution and its processes. We have become lawless in favor of a cult of personality.
Everything – EVERYTHING – that I loved and valued – equality, liberty, the process of government – has been flaunted and dashed in the last few years. And a good portion of the country is eating it up. It’s just hard to feel patriotic right now.
And I know I’m not alone. On July 3rd, a friend texted me “Happy Hamilton Day! It’s the only holiday I will be celebrating this weekend!”
But I’m not ending this story here. I think this is salvageable. I may not show my love for my country as effusively as I used to, but there are still a few things to believe in.
This is a country that puts stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave for elections. Especially when they are voting for women. Susan B. Anthony gave us a simple, syllogistic proposition when she asked, “Is it a Crime for a US Citizen to Vote?”
- It is legal to US citizens to vote.
- I am a US citizen.
- Therefore is it legal for me to vote.
She was arrested for her trouble.
It would be easy to not believe in a country that would do such a thing. But this is also a country that put her on currency.
Anthony believed in a particular version of America, and she fought for it. Now, Anthony had her issues. She wasn’t real solid on race. But she believed in an America that could be swayed by a combination of reason and action. That’s a hopeful America to believe in. I like that America.
This is a country that elected Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician, to office in 1977. Once again it would be easy to say Harvey Milk is a reason to lose hope in America because he was assassinated after 11 months in office by a man who used “I ate too much junk food” as his defense. It became known as the “Twinkie defense.” His killer was convicted for manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years but only served five.
But before he was killed Milk articulated a version of America we are still working toward today. He envisioned an America in which gay people, Black people, Latinx people, old people, and disabled people were fairly and equally represented. And all were working together for the good of everybody. I don’t like the America that killed Harvey Milk. But I love the America he was working toward.
This is a fraught country. It took us until 2008 to elect a Black President. But we DID elect a Black President. And the backlash was swift and furious. The rise in white supremacy today may well be due to the fact that we had a Black President for 8 years. And this is not about singing the praises of that President. There was a lot he did that I disagreed with. But I want to talk about the America he believed in.
In 2008 he gave a speech in response to a controversy surrounding his former minister, Jeremiah Wright. Wright had been recorded saying some very critical things about America and it went viral and people were losing their minds – could we elect someone who tolerated this kind of language? Obama addressed the controversy by addressing race in general.
The speech took place in Philadelphia and he made good use of his surroundings. He began with that familiar quote, “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union” that was enshrined just yards away from where he stood. But he said that project was unfinished. It was stained by the “original sin” of slavery that would haunt the colonies and then the states for years to come. But he said the solution was right there: “Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time. “
This, he claims, is why he chose to run for President. Because he believes in a more just, decent, and caring America.
And that we cannot make it a “more perfect union” if we do not work for it. And he believes this because of his own, personal story.
Obama was the son of a Black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.
He says, “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”
He claims he literally embodies the message of unity that the American people are so hungry for.
That is not to say race was not a part of his campaign – that was inevitable. Jeremiah Wright’s comments were indicative of a racial divide in the nation that ran long and deep. And many people wondered how Obama could associate with someone like Wright. But Obama described what he knew of the man – a man who brought spirit and hope to a people who needed it. A man who told their story in a nation that seemed so determined to silence it.
The black church that Wright ministered at was emblematic of the black community as a whole. There were doctors, lawyers, those on welfare, those bound for top schools, and those in gangs. Services were loud and raucous and sometimes bawdy, but they embodied the love, spirit, and sometimes bitterness that defined the Black experience in America. And this is how Wright was – he contained the contradictions of Blackness. So Obama could no more disown Wright than he could disown his own Black community – or his white grandmother, who though she loves him had expressed fear of black men and muttered unacceptable racial and ethnic stereotypes. Wright could not be dismissed, just as some of the comments about Obama that had surfaced could not be dismissed, because race as an issue could not be dismissed at that moment.
The issue of race had to be understood as a product of not just slavery but of decades of Jim Crow. He said we had to contend with the fact that though Brown v Board was passed in 1954 schools are still segregated. We had to contend with the wealth gap that came from the legal discrimination against Blacks in home loans, unions, or business opportunities that had existed for years. Black families had not been able to amass any kind of money for themselves to pass on to their children, creating cycles of poverty, while White families built generational wealth, increasing the wealth gap every generation. This legal discrimination eroded the Black family. And this frustration sometimes finds its voice in the Black church on a Sunday morning.
But, Obama says, White people are angry, too.
It’s hard to feel privileged when you are watching your jobs be shipped overseas. Wages are stagnant and global markets are making things harder and harder. And it’s difficult to be told your fears of urban neighborhoods make you a racist. Anger about welfare and affirmative action lead to the Reagan Revolution.
Politicians routinely exploit those fears. There is a whole cottage industry of talk shows and pundits who have built careers on bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate claims of injustice as “political correctness” or “reverse racism.” And this has proved harmful – this white anger has detracted from the real harms to the middle and lower classes:
- Corporate greed
- Washington corruptions
- Policies that favor the few over the many
Resentments from both groups have proven counterproductive and have just widened the gap. There’s not going to be any understanding if we can’t identify the real cause of our problems.
Obama says we can move beyond this racial divide. Not immediately, but we can.
The Black community must see its struggle in others – in white women trying to break the glass ceiling and in the immigrant trying to feed his family. The Black community cannot become victims of their own past and their own resentment, which is justified, but must challenge themselves to write their own futures. The White community MUST realize that racism is not just in the minds of Black people. They must invest in the Black community to close the gap caused by generations of discrimination and oppression.
But now is the time to say we are doing things different.
“For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle — as we did in the O.J. trial — or in the wake of tragedy — as we did in the aftermath of Katrina — or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time, we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the emergency room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care, who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time, we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time, we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time, we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together and fight together and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. And we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them and their families, and giving them the benefits that they have earned.
I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation — the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.”
And he ends with a moving story that always makes me cry about the love that an old Black man shows for a young white woman.
Now, there are problems with this speech. As Ibram X. Kendi has written his has some moments of assimilationism where Obama seems to be bowing to the interests of the White community instead of being truly anti-racist.
But what I want to focus on is the America Obama believes in. It’s the America where we are all worried about healthcare together. The American where we are all trying to fix public schools. The America where we acknowledge each other’s pain but recognize the real enemies of corporate America and special interests, WITHOUT ignoring the systemic natures of sexism and racism in America. That’s the America I love.
Current day America is hard to wrap my mind around. This isn’t the country I signed up for. But there is an America that I love and cherish. And it exists in the hearts and minds of her reformers and heroes. And I am reminded of that all the time. When I teach and when I write I reach for that America, and sometimes, in class discussion or in a good paper from a student, I find her.
So that’s what Independence Day and patriotism mean to me these days. A quiet, but hopeful celebration of the America I wish for.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.