Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

Last night - July 3rd - my wife and I went down the hill to the downtown Davenport riverfront for the annual fireworks show. For those that don't know, The downtowns of both Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, sit across the muddy Mississippi from each other, and the cities' crowds have little "who can scream louder on the count of 3" contests before the show begins. All this goes on while kids are eating corn dogs, people are having a game of catch, and everyone simpy relaxes and is nice to each other for a day, while enjoying being outside with family. Americana at its best.

Every year on this holiday - well, every year since maybe my first years in college - I have found myself sitting and pondering the atmosphere of patriotism that surrounds. Taking pride in something such as the overarching "meaning" of the country I happened to be born in seems kind of strange to me, but at the same time, hey - I can't help it - I am fond of the Fourth of July.

There was a band of elderly veterans playing patriotic tunes before the show, and it seemed to be like I was stuck in a scene from a 1950s pleasantville - somewhat adorable, somewhat of an anachronism - but all in all, it started off as a very quaint, fun time for me. The band leader would stand between songs and address the large crowd via a PA system, introducing each new tune, its historical significance, a personal story, whathaveyou.

And then it started - that thing I can never quite put my finger on. After a few songs, we were all asked to stand and observe a reading from the Declaration of Independence, then we were asked to stand again for the pledge of allegiance, and then after this, we were asked to remain standing for another 5 minutes or so, as the emcee read off the names of the branches of our military, and asked for cheers and applause for our enlisted ones - like a pep rally for one really large, nationwide high school.

At first, with the Declaration of Independence reading, I felt somewhat proud. It's a strong piece of writing, and tells much about the essential human condition of yearning for freedom. But like always, I quickly felt a little out of place during the other items. I've seen countless programs that feautre snippets about WWII vets - amazing souls with their amazing stories, and how the looking at, saluting, and flying of the American flag brings forth an indescribable visceral reaction to them. And I completely respect that and find a sense of awe in it, but... I just don't have that. I wasn't "born" with that sense. And to be honest, I'm not even sure that if I were a veteran of that age, I would have it. To me, our flag is just a symbol, and a vague one at that. If it's a symbol of America, what is "America?" It's a concept that differs widely throughout each of its citizens. And we say a pledge of *allegiance* to this symbol. We say that this nation is "indivisible," and "under god," and that there is "justice for all."

Why make a solemn promise to these principals that do not include everyone's religious values? - Whose god?

Why make a pledge to an inaccurate indivisibility? - We are a country that often goes through periods where its citizens experience no gut feeling of a unified front, similar to the current years that have passed since autumn of 2001.

Why speak proudly of a "justice for all," especially with the recent news of our President's commutation of Scooter Libby's sentenced time in prison?

My writing here sounds sophomoric, but do you get my point?

So there we were, in the middle of a huge crowd, each and every one of us expected to go through this... "choreography" of patriotism. I felt like I was in church, and that is not good. Pride and patriotism do not come through mass ceremony.

As my wife and I looked around during the calling out of our branches of military, I had noticed that by this time, about 2/3 of the large audience was sitting back down, not paying attention. People were back with their families, smiling, eating corn dogs and cotton candy, playing catch, and waiting for the fireworks to begin. This is what happens when a seemingly endless war looms over the collective "head" of all of us. This is what happens when over and over, and over... and OVER again, our President acts more and more like a despot king. People tune out and lose faith, and get back to the things that really matter - not our nationalism, but our families and friends. Our inter-relationships with each other, not an us-versus-them mentality of viewing the world.


Cap'n Cream said...

While not strictly relegated to the 4th of July, I have a hard time with the patriotic hoopla as well. During a recent shindig for a national organization I belong to, the pledge of allegiance was said, in unison. In front of me were the local colorguard. While I did stand, I refuse to say the pledge. I don't pray to a god, why would I pray to a flag.
I do respect the 4th of July, and what it stands for, a rebellion against tyranny. Funny how the tables have turned in 231 years.

Now, where's my kiss?

Matt said...

smooch. (with tongue)

Mark said...

I think this is a contradiction felt by most people that actually understand the principles our nation was founded on. As a self governing people it is our responsibility to see that government does not become tyranny. Being blindly patriotic is un-American. The very fact that you feel unease when exposed to these activities shows that you are a vigilant patriot Matt Pulford.

I had a similar experience a few years ago at an international conference being hosted in Kansas. The whole group was having dinner at a faux cowboy music and dining "experience". Before dinner the cowboy entertainers announced that no one would be served until we had all stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I spent the next few moments looking around at those of our group who had traveled from other countries - in general the look on their faces was one of fear. I followed up on this with several of them afterwards from England, France, and Japan. It was their first exposure to the ritual and at best they thought the pledge was in bad taste - but most thought it reeked of totalitarianism.

Lastly, I saw the new Michael Moore movie on the 4th. (traitorous scoundrel that I am) One idea that has been resonating since is that in France (for example) the Government is afraid of the people, in the U.S. the people are afraid of the Government.

Don't stand for it.

Kelli said...

Working at the "Freedom Museum" is very interesting, because it really brings up the definitions that people have of "freedom," and "patriotism." We had an exhibit about the flag, and flag burning, with a letter from Colin Powell supporting the protection of free speech and allowing flag burning. It was amazing how many people assumed without even coming into the museum that a museum named the "freedom museum" would tow the patriot line and take a stance against flag burning, and the Colin Powell would never support it. As everyone else has said, if you understand the principles that the flag actually stands FOR, then you can't in good conscience tell people the CAN'T burn it. The same with a forced Pledge of Allegiance (unconstitutional to force someone, but the way, damn cowboys), or arrests for going to political meetings.

So many people seem to forget my favorite line of the Declaration: "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."