Like baseball and American pie, there’s nothing more American than loving America. You don’t even need a reason at this point, just subscribe to the Trump Doctrine™, “We’re America, bitch.” Okay, you don’t have to go that far. But This July, like every July, we’ll set aside our differences for a day to watch fireworks and eat hotdogs and settle in to worship our lord and savior, George Washington.
But in 1852, Frederick Douglass challenged this holiday in delivering what would become one of his most notable speeches, What to a Slave is the Fourth of July? In this oration, Douglass outlines the whole—at that point brief—history of the United States and applauds the courage and fortitude of the founding fathers. But in doing so he calls out the hypocrisy of this foundation that promoted ideas of freedom and independence while upholding the institution of slavery. He proclaimed, “Fellow citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
Nearly two centuries later, I’m thinking the same thing. We have come a long way from the slave trade days, but we continue to live in a country that prides itself in moral superiority and unfettered Freedom without a whole lot of supporting evidence. We have Freedom*
*Unless you’re black and run into the wrong cop, or a child migrating illegally, or a refugee seeking asylum or a woman looking for a job with fair wages and protection from harassment, or trans and trying to use whatever bathroom you want, or a kid trying to go to school without being gunned down, or, or…
So I beg the question—what to 2018 is the Fourth of July?
It’s okay to be proud of where you’re from—America or anywhere. But it’s also okay to be critical of where you’re from at the same time. It seems as though somewhere between Douglass’ oratory and now we lost that multitasking ability. Now when someone critiques America it has to fall on one side—liberal or conservative—and it often ends with the critic being called anti-American. Lest we forget that the Fourth of July celebrates a time when a bunch of guys got together and decided to critique their government (with guns!).
Liberals critique the government all the time—now and when they had the White House. Sure if we could quantify the critiques it would likely be more now, but I digress.
When liberals critique things like gun laws, police brutality, hate crimes, they get called any number of the classic slurs—snowflakes, libtards, PC police, sons of bitches, etc.
Often we’ve seen liberals get called socialist, communists, and other labels that insinuate that they are un-American because of their politics and their critiques of the government. Those persecuting liberals—or anyone who opposes the government for that matter—forget so quickly that this nation was founded on protest. We had no right to declare independence (we had no right to even live on this land, but that’s another essay). The colonists frankly got very lucky that they won the war because as we know, they all would have been hanged or exiled had they failed.
When individuals do something like kneel for the national anthem or plan a die-in at a grocery store, regardless of their true intention, none of these people have said it’s because they’re against America. Because that’s crazy. If anyone was so against America that they’d put their careers on the line, I’m fairly certain they would leave. Maybe that’s extreme, but have you ever had a disagreement with someone above you? Did it mean that you hated that person? Most of the time, no.
This goes both ways. Conservatives have an idea of what their America is to look like. Some of them think they’re on track to make this America “great” “again.” Their America is similar to the America of American Dream fame—a place where anyone can make it with the right amount of pluck and determination.
To conservatives who celebrate America every day, but especially on July 4, I ask what are you celebrating? There is a long list of incredible Americans who do globally inspiring things. And there is a long history of America doing great things and being a great nation. But it’s not all good, and it’s not a bad thing to acknowledge that.
If your favorite football team doesn’t win the Superbowl every year, do you still cheer for them? Of course. But you as a fan and supporter of that team might want to question why the team isn’t winning the Superbowl every year. Maybe the coach doesn’t know enough about football. Or maybe the players need to work better together as a team. Regardless, you shouldn’t keep cheering them on and pretend that winning the Superbowl every year isn’t the goal. If that’s not the goal, why are they playing?
To that point, I compare the idea that America is an exceptional nation and a leader in the world. We were founded on this principle that we will be a city upon a hill with all the eyes of the people upon us. There are a number of issues with that ideology, but for the sake of example, we’ll say this is the goal of the United States—to be the best and serve as an example for the rest of the world to follow. The fact is, the US is not winning the Superbowl right now, so what are we doing here?
If you are proud to be an American, you better be ready to back that up. Are you proud of the way we are ripping apart immigrant families? Are you proud of the way we lead the world in gun-related deaths per year by an exponential margin? Are you proud of ignorance? Are you proud of intolerance?
I’m not encouraging the other extreme, though. Walking around in shame for our nation is not exactly productive either. Like most things, American pride is best served in moderation. That doesn’t mean it should only be reserved for holidays, but I mean there’s a lot more to be proud of when you’re critical of yourself and your government. We have to be able to admit when we’re wrong, and we must be able to offer an explanation when we still think we’re right.
Freedom is the perfect example of this. We have a lot of freedoms to celebrate, I will never deny that. On the global scale, there continue to be too many nations where the freedoms we take for granted are not guaranteed. But that doesn’t make us perfect. It’s a privilege we should recognize especially when critiquing our government, but it doesn’t justify other oppressions. Just because Jim Crow ended doesn’t mean black Americans are in the clear, as we all should know by now. Just because we’re supposed to have Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean we should stand by while individuals use that to promote bigotry and hate. And just because we are a capital ‘F’ Free country does not mean we should be complacent in the crimes being committed by our government.
The 2012 opening of my favorite show, The Newsroom rings true to this day. Jeff Daniels delivers an eviscerating commentary on why America is not the greatest country in the world, and he doesn’t do it by calling for ‘civility’ or attacking either political party. He calls on us to wake up and go back to our roots of being brave, informed, and vigilant. I negate the argument that there is a period of time in the past that we need to aspire to emulate, but there are aspects of past periods we should look to. There are aspects of this country that do make it great. But we cannot and should not keep pretending that this nation is or ever was perfect. The goal is a ‘more perfect union.’ We have to try harder.