Friday, July 5, 2019

An Inglorious Fourth?

Actually, it was a fine Fourth.  Americans, as they do every year, held parades and picnics, ate hot dogs, attended outdoor concerts, and watched fireworks. And, for all the angst that preceded it, the President's holiday show had no discernably diminishing effect on any of that. At the other end of the Mall, Washington's traditional "A Capitol Fourth" went on as usual. As the saying goes, a good time was had by all.

The celebration on the Capitol's West Lawn looked like more fun, and the audience looked a lot more like all of America, and it sounded genuinely inspiring as all present sang together Irving Berlin's glorious God Bless America. But the less inspiring presidential show was not the apocalypse some seemed to anticipate. There is nothing per se wrong with patriotic displays that include impressive military hardware and airplane flyovers and the participation of politicians. Any serious society requires rituals. If our society has become ritually impoverished, that is a problem, not progress. Rituals both bind us together and link us with our past, which we forget at our peril. And in peril we are, when it comes to remembering our history. Thus a July 4 Politico article highlighted how much less visited our historical sites are now. (Colonial Williamsburg, for example, gets about half as many visitors as it did in the 1980s.)

That said, there was something jarring about last night's presidential event. Perhaps that is an artifact of this particular presidency and the way almost everything in American life has become hyper-politicized because of it. In fact, the President's speech was not particularly partisan. It was hardly the best written account of American history, but there was about it nothing overly offensive or objectionable. But, because of how he and his party have governed, the event just could not help seeming somehow poisoned. That says something about the President, but it also says a lot about us, about the kind of country we have become.

Then too it was jarring, less because of anything that happened there than by contrast with what we conventionally associate with celebrating the "Glorious Fourth." For all the flags and patriotic music that appropriately decorate the day, this holiday has always had a somewhat relaxed and communal character. We may salute the flag as it passes in parade, but meanwhile we may be munching on a hot dog. There is nothing wrong at all about the famous French parade on Bastille Day that so impressed President Trump, but that just is not how we typically celebrate July 4 in cities and small towns across America.  It is a uniquely American holiday, and we celebrate it in a uniquely American way. July 4 has a character all its own, which says something significant about who we are, who we have been, and who we hope to be.

Ultimately July 4 - like the Declaration of Independence it celebrates - is an aspirational holiday. For this is an aspirational country, as generations of immigrants past - and present - have repeatedly demonstrated. For all the fireworks and good old-fashioned fun, July 4 is our celebration of and our recommitment to those aspirations - something this president and his party have sadly proved themselves incapable of.

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