The Rocket’s Red Glare
Americans are blinded by symbols of power and wealth as substitutes for liberty and freedom
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,Francis Scott Key
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Much of what is dysfunctional in America can be witnessed front and center during our big summer holidays. The bizarre military fetish. The classic overindulgence of food and booze. The garish displays of red, white, and blue. The puzzling insistence on remembering all the wrong things about our past. We’ve got it all.
Summer in America is loosely defined as the long days that exist between Memorial Day (last Monday in May) and Labor Day (first Monday in September), with Independence Day (July 4th) landing smack dab in the middle. These were all originally designed to be somber affairs, a day of remembrance for our history and the sacrifices of those who came before us.
Over time, they have become simply long holiday weekends dedicated to burning dead animals on grills, drinking beer, and blowing shit up. Oh sure, you can post the obligatory patriotic meme on social media, play your cloying country ballads, and fly your little flag, but that’s about as far as most of us go.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, “You know I don’t normally have a burger, a brat, and a steak, but it is the Fourth of July, and I’m going to need the energy if I’m going to start blowing crap up. It’s what the founding fathers would have wanted.”
I feel the same way about America as I do about Christianity. I like the ideal much more than the reality. I grew up believing that the best parts of America were worth fighting for. Liberty. Equality. Freedom. Courage. Honesty. Integrity. A classless meritocracy where everyone had a chance to succeed. A representative democracy where we were all equal under the law. I was also raised with the faith that God was kind and good, and that loving your neighbor as yourself was the point of it all. That grace was better than greed.
That was the America I was sold, but not the one I find myself living in. The one I see today is vindictive and fearful, greedy, barbarous, and cruel. A pale reflection of the mythical narrative of amber waves of grain, purple mountains majesty, and heroes who loved their country more than life. We ended up with a cheap imitation performed by poseurs and hacks. Lee Greenwood, Lauren Boebert, and Donald Trump.
My big problem with these holidays is that they are based on empty pride, the senseless violence of war, and a healthy helping of revisionist history. What are we so proud of? Trading one group of rich douchebags for another? The genocide of the natives? Slavery? No, of course not.
We are proud of our military accomplishments, which amount to being on the winning side in two European wars, a second one that also included Japan and China, one civil war here at home, and a series of ill-fated skirmishes in far-flung places from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
While other countries were trying to rebuild all the shit we’d blown up, we were home cranking out Chryslers and Buicks, Frigidaires, and Whirlpools. Learning how to process fake food using factory farms. We made banking and stock exchanges contact sports for the elites at the cost of working people. We polluted the earth and managed to create an enormous amount of unnecessary waste.
What did we gain from these wars? They’ll tell you it was to secure our freedom, but it’s hard to explain how the Vietnamese or Afghans were ever going to be in a position to threaten our national security. Presumably, what we got in return was global dominance for a time. Economically. Financially. Militarily. But that is fading. We still have the world’s largest standing military force, but we don’t know what to do with it. It’s not a defensive force. It’s designed to invade other countries at will.
It’s not as if we don’t have things to be proud of, although pride isn’t really the angle I would take. It’s taken us nearly 250 years to get this far, and frankly, we don’t have a lot to show for it. We’ve failed at realizing our dream of creating a better society. We traded in that dream for incalculable wealth in the hands of the few, gross inequality, and leaders who were above the law, which is precisely what we revolted against in the first place. We’ve come so far, only to end up where we began.
American patriotism is closer in stature to professional sports fans following a team than in any ideological sanctity. Just as sports fans will don a jersey and pretend they’re part of the team, Americans wrap themselves in the flag and boast of our military greatness and military power as if they had anything to do with it.
It’s often misquoted and misattributed, but the sentiment is accurate enough: The reason socialism never took root in America is that the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
That is a more accurate statement of fact than anything remotely resembling it being the home of the brave and the land of the free. Poor people don’t support taxing the rich because they somehow believe they will join the ranks of the upper class one day. The very promise of upward mobility is what keeps them oppressed and disadvantaged.
A Brave New World
Despite the regular commentary by many, both inside and out, I’m not ready to call it quits when it comes to the United States of America. I live here. This is my home. My family is here. My history is here. I believe it to be worth saving, and I think we still have something to offer the world beyond cheeseburgers, pop music, superheroes, and weapons of mass destruction.
“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, 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.”
If you put aside the obvious moral failures of white men in the 18th century, the intent was good. A better society built on the best ideas from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment. The genius of the US Constitution, when it was first formed, was that it was infinitely changeable to meet the demands of the day.
It laid out a framework for a system of government that did its best to discourage any one person or persons from gaining too much power. But most of what we think we know concerning our laws and democratic norms are based on interpretations over time of what it meant or should mean.
Rather than focusing on how best to realize the dream of a more equitable society where all citizens are free to pursue a life of happiness, we have devolved into a petty skirmish over what we think the founders wanted.
Richard Bach wrote the classic novella “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” in 1970, about a lowly seagull who evolves in mind and spirit over time to become the best version of himself by believing he could be perfect. In 2014, Bach reissued the book with a fourth section which takes place 100 years after the original story.
In the new section, Jonathan and all who knew him are long gone. Only a faint memory remains, and that memory has been twisted into symbolic rituals that have lost all original meaning. No one flies for the sheer joy of it anymore. All their acts are done for public consumption and as a show of piety. They’ve lost the plot, by ritualizing symbols that no longer have any meaning.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for where we find ourselves as a country. We fight amongst ourselves, with one side arguing for the sanctity of originalism, and the other side fighting to keep the dream alive of a better tomorrow. Will we regress or move forward? Does the American Dream still exist? Are we still worthy of admiration and capable of being a positive example for the world? I hope so. I truly do. It’s not over yet.
There still may be time to turn it around.
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