It is sure an odd time to celebrate America’s birthday.
The coronavirus epidemic ravages state and country. The U.S.’s response has been criticized around the world, so much that the European Union recommends not allowing Americans to travel to Europe. Multiple incidents of police brutality such as George Floyd’s murder have re-awakened racial wounds. The efficacy and ethics of the police are being questioned. Locally, Oshkosh, Wisconsin had no city-sponsored fireworks celebration.
On top of it all, it’s an election year. Yay to more partisanship!
I have posted about July 4th every year since starting this blog in 2016. I was quite optimistic despite the challenges in the past. For instance, my first post is titled “A Tribute to Political Genius and Generations of Patriotism.” I spent most of it praising the so-called “American Experiment” with a small acknowledgment of our mistakes at the end:
“As a final note, don’t get me wrong. there are blemishes in America’s past. The treatment of African-Americans, women, Native Americans and other minorities was deplorable years ago. Likewise, workers, the poor and the powerless have been mistreated. We have made mistakes in our foreign policy. However, despite all of these failings, America is a great nation which has given countless Americans exceptional lives and provided inspiration to people everywhere.”
I meant well, but it sure appears tone deaf now. It’s the “hey we used to do bad stuff before but that’s largely in the past so yay us” type rhetoric. It’s easy for those who have been largely insulated from oppression, which includes me, to wish “hey, why don’t you just move on?” or if not expressly wish it, imply it with a dismissal of the complaints against the country.
Amidst such problems and division, I don’t find the “America is the best country in the world” rhetoric useful at all. One, how do your quantify that? It’s a feeling which is very difficult to make scientific and based on data. Two, have you been living under a rock? What on earth makes you say we are the best country in the world?
To some, including myself, America’s pretty dysfunctional right now. I imagine the country and its divisions as a relationship gone awry.
Two former partners meet, and one is not happy to see the other….
“Hey Richard, it’s been a long time!” John says, running up to him. “What brings you around?”
“Hey John.” Richard doesn’t make eye contact. “Yes, it has….”
John reaches out for a handshake.
Richard stares at him.
John retracts his hand. “Better not, with COVID and all, right?”
“Yeah….” Richard’s voice trails off, looking for an exit.
“What’s wrong, man?” John says, impatient. “Are you still mad about….you know….?”
Richard doesn’t reply or make eye contact. He starts to walk away.
“It was 20 years ago. I was stupid then-and your life is a lot better now, isn’t it?” John says, irritation ruling his voice. “So why do you gotta be like this?”
“So one apology and everything’s fine?” Richard says,his anger matching John’s.
“I can’t take back the past…and at some point, you need to get over it.” John says, getting right up into Richard’s face. “It was years ago, I feel bad, I said sorry. Get over it. You have a great life now. It’s better than it’s ever been!”
“I’m not going to forgive you to make you feel better.” Richard replies, walking away. “You don’t get off that easy.”
“You’re such a child! I didn’t even have to say anything, you know?!” John screams at Richard’s back. “Acting like this…You deserved it anyway!”
John’s not a very sympathetic guy, is he? It’s much easier to identify with Richard, at least for me.
It’s not hard to see whom or what the two represent. John’s abuse may have been years ago, but it lingers. Regardless of how Richard’s life is now, their interaction will still affect him and it’s selfish for John to demand Richard “to get over it” to make him feel better.
I hear a lot about how much better life is for minorities and other oppressed groups now than it was in the past. Putting aside that argument, it’s very easy to justify current shitty behavior or conditions because they are not as shitty as the past.
Let’s return to John and Richard:
John grabs Richard and pushes him against the wall. “Hey, asshole, pay attention!”
“What the hell, man?” Richard pushes John off. “What are you doing?”
John steps back, shock all over his face. “What’s with the attitude? I’m not hitting you anymore!”
“Yeah, but you slammed me against the wall!” Richard counters.
“It could be a lot worse!” John sneers.
“It could be a lot better!” Richard thunders.
“What has gotten into you?” John steps back. “Think about what you’re doing before you make a real big mistake.”
Richard hesitates. John steps forward again, having reasserted control.
Or so he thought.
Richard punches John in the face.
“I should’ve done this a long time ago.” Richard said, before leaving.
“If you have a problem, bring up like an adult!” John screams. “Violence is no way to go about it!”
His words fade into nothingness, with no one there to listen to hear him.
An even more clear example, right? John has no problems roughing up Richard, but is flabbergasted when some of his treatment comes his own way. He ironically and hypocritically condemns Richard for resorting to violence although it’s fine when he does it.
Not an entirely perfect analogy, though there are parallels. Oppressed groups are tired of being oppressed. When they want equality and better treatment, they have to be so much better and oppressors than their oppressors or there’s no progress. Even if they engage in non-violent civil disobedience, there’s fierce opposition.
Case in point:
Green Bay Quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s comments on kneeling for the national anthem approximate my feelings about America right now:
“‘People say you shouldn’t do it (kneel) during the anthem.’ Okay, that’s your opinion and I appreciate your opinion. And I’m standing up. Because to me, that’s what the anthem means. But it means something different to somebody else. And that should be okay.”
Mr. Rodgers manages the ever-so-elusive combo of doing one thing while respecting and supporting those who do another. It’s a nuance we desperately need in this country.
So, on this 4th of July, my feelings about America are mixed. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but we can do so much better. I may not kneel during the anthem or march in the streets, but I support those who do.
America is great for some. And not great for others.
Before we trumpet ourselves as the greatest nation in the world, let’s make sure it’s great for all.