The Fourth of July has come and gone, and, like many people who have been observing American politics and civic life over the past decade, I was full of mixed feelings about the day, the country, and what, exactly, it is we’re celebrating.
I got up the morning of the holiday to the usual online wrangling over the holiday, the sort of introspection, excoriation and cautious celebration that’s become commonplace in my social circles. There were a few articles about great patriots, most of them military in some way, along with plenty of other articles about how America has never lived up to that initial, golden ideal of liberty and equality for everyone.
American hypocrisy, especially on the part of the government, is big news over the past couple of months. The NSA is collecting our data, the IRS seems to be targeting political enemies of the administration, drones are killing innocents all around the world, the Supreme Court struck down a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act, conservative legislatures are making massive attacks on abortion and women’s health, and there’s still gross corruption and horrible inequality here in Connecticut, just to name a few. How does any of this not run completely counter to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which states that it is “self-evident” that “all men are created equal?”
For far too many people who live in this country, there’s always been the hard reality of exactly this sort of hypocrisy, when government and society promise freedom but often encourage and engage in exactly the sort of oppression they profess to hate. This hypocrisy goes all the way back to the beginning: the man who wrote those words about equality and liberty owned 140 slaves, and fathered children with at least one of them. The Constitution, written only 13 years later, enshrined slavery and extended the franchise only to white men. Ever since then we’ve been trying, one excruciating, revolutionary compromise at a time, to bring the reality into line with the ideal.
It’s easy to be down on this country, and to simply give up. Some people have, because that’s the only way they can deal with it. Others find ways to ignore or rationalize all the bad things that have happened. Still others find meaning in the myths, like the “leader of the free world” one, all the military stuff, American exceptionalism, and so on. When Independence Day comes around, people complain, people party, people strut, and people reflect.
As for me, I went for a ride on my bike. I rode up to the village and breathed in the humid air. I rode near the spot where a few days before, a tornado had skipped over the town like a stone on a lake, pausing to kiss the pavement on Hazard Avenue before lifting up into the storm again. I thought about the country, the storm, and the day as I rode past teenagers walking and joking. Fires burned in backyards, the smell of hot dogs and the sound of laughter was in the air.
Then I hit a bad stretch of pavement and fell, scraping my hands and knee. The bike clattered to the ground. I got up, bruised but fine, and began the work of re-attaching the chain. People slowed, leaned out of their cars, and asked if I needed any help. I didn’t, I said, and thanked them. I was surprised and touched, this suburban Connecticut town often feels so impersonal and cold.
Maybe, I thought as I woozily made my way home, maybe I overthink things. Maybe I should just try to accept the country as it is, all the good, bad, and everything in between lumped together. Maybe there’s some kind of middle ground. If we go beyond all the myths and lies and government hypocrisy, underneath are all these people and all these places, and together they make up some kind of whole. We have so, so far to go to live up to the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and I know it’ll be painful and difficult getting there, but I still have faith that someday we will.
In the meantime, the Fourth is a great day to celebrate or reflect or protest or just sit at home and fume. I think I did all of those things, and more. That night I sat up late and listened as the neighbors set off firework after firework, their staccato bursts punctuating the night, and thought here’s to another year.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.