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Patriotism and Pandemic: the 4th of July 2020

This is the 4th of July weekend, a time when as recently as last July we used to celebrate our country with barbecues and fireworks and ballgames. During this Coronavirus pandemic it remains to be seen exactly what this 4th of July will actually be like. All such public assemblies are proscribed by the danger of mass infection this year, and until we have a vaccine and a medical solution to COVID-19 we will not be able to celebrate in our accustomed way. The hope is that by the next 4th of July we will truly be all the way back.

And that’s a shame; I really enjoy the 4th of July, especially watching those amazing fireworks displays. John Adams, our nation’s first Vice President and second President, famously said, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival… It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Adams was off a little, since the formal signing turned out to be 2 days after the declaration passed Congress on July 2nd, but otherwise he had it right: every 4th of July ever since has been commemorated with fireworks and parades and pageants.

But I wonder what the meaning of this particular 4th will be for many other reasons. As the protests against systemic racism and police brutality continue all around our nation, how possible would it have been to hold the usual blazing displays of superficial patriotism this week anyway?

When people are focused on pulling down statues of erstwhile heroes who had ugly skeletons in their closets, how enthusiastic would most of us have been for the unifying but white-washing concerts, speeches and pyrotechnic displays of a typical 4th of July?

To be honest, real American patriotism seems like a kind of artifact of the distant past these days, something we used to share in this country, long ago, and don’t really have in the same way anymore.

I’m not talking about the fake public patriotism of the flamboyant politician, or the reactive patriotism of the nationalist bigot. I’m definitely not talking about a militarist fringe that calls itself patriots, or the hollow chords bloviated by self-inflated narcissists. I’m thinking instead of what I remember from my childhood, something quite different, a shared sense that we were all in this together, that the American mission was to advocate freedom and justice for all, everywhere, both at home and abroad.

To be called a patriot back then did not specify that you belonged to one particular political party or advocated a specific agenda. It simply meant that you loved our country, as much for its potential as for its accomplishments, that you believed that being an American should be, as the philosopher George Santayana put it “almost a moral condition.” To be a patriot was to believe in democracy and the rule of law, in elections, in honest police and fair-minded judges, in media—newspapers and radio and TV, then—that had a responsibility to ferret out the truth, to be honest and critical but not cruel. To be American meant to give everyone a fair shake, to think anyone could rise from a difficult or impoverished upbringing to contribute to a great nation.

Growing up, I thought everyone wanted to be patriotic. Heck, we kids assumed everyone was a patriot, and the stories of the great men (and a few token women) who had made this country great were a shared part of our common mythology: The Courage of the Mayflower Pilgrims, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Abe Lincoln the Railsplitter, FDR—from Paralysis to Permanent President, and so on. Where I grew up long ago, in the early and mid-1960’s, it seemed everyone on our street put up the American flag on July 4th—and also on flag day, June 14th. We were proud to be Americans and wanted to show it.

Everyone’s dad, nearly, was a veteran of World War II or perhaps Korea. That went for Jews, Christians, white, black, Hispanic, Democrats, Republicans, rich, poor. Nearly everyone’s grandparents, or parents, had immigrated from another country. There was a shared feeling that America was a great country, that we were lucky to be living in it, that our parents and everyone else’s were contributing to making it great.

Kids actually grew up dreaming of being president, or senator, or even mayor. We wanted to be part of the greatness of our country, to help it serve its ideals. There was a common denominator for nearly all of us: it was a bedrock belief in our country, America, and its broad promises of freedom and opportunity.

It wasn’t true that everyone felt equally included in that sense of pride and patriotism, of course. Half a century after those days we should all be well aware that racism and sexism limited access to that patriotic dream that we thought we all shared. And shortly afterwards some of the hidden tensions subsumed in that misty veil of patriotism began to rupture and explode.

In many ways actually, things were much worse back then: the air in Los Angeles where I grew up, was unbreathable and sickeningly filthy. There was segregation even in liberal western and northern cities, and race riots broke out everywhere when I was still a kid, far worse than we have seen at any time since. Women were discriminated against in the workplace and in society and had an impossibly difficult time creating careers. Anti-Semitism was a given in university admissions and corporate hiring. There were economic ups and downs, too, just like today, with wide swings in things inflation and unemployment. And of course, patriotism was often badly misused: Joe McCarthy did it in the 1950’s, even if that story has been turned into a patriotic victory for justice because of the Army-McCarthy hearings and a brilliant lawyer named Welch who unmasked the lies and false patriotism. Patriotism can be the last refuge of a scoundrel like McCarthy, but here in America we didn’t believe you could misuse something sacred like patriotism for long.

And then very quickly, when I was still a boy of 7 or 8, the whole edifice of patriotism broke down. Assassination after assassination, war in Vietnam, political riots on campus and everywhere else, domestic terrorism—they called it the Weathermen or the Black Panthers, then, but it was an early form of terrorism. Lots of tremendously divisive things happened all at once in America: drugs, sex, rock and roll, recessions and inflation, more Vietnam, Watergate, and so on.

And when I was ten years old people on our street stopped putting up the American flag on the 4th of July. It was perhaps inevitable. But something important was lost.

That something was patriotism in a broad, agreeable, warming way, a patriotism that made you assume that the people around you shared your vision of a country you could love and respect and care about deeply, where we naively believed that all of us had a chance to be anything we wanted to become, and that doing so would help our country become even better.

When that sense of common mission broke down in the fires of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s America didn’t collapse. It took a few years to assimilate the changes, but we soon became a more diverse, richer, more egalitarian, more sophisticated society.

A great deal was gained. But something, also, was lost, and that something is sometimes, still, a sad absence, especially true on the 4th of July. Because we all want to belong to something greater than ourselves, more powerful, something that gives added meaning to our lives. And if that’s the country we live in, and perhaps were born in, that’s a pretty spectacular gift.

I think in a funny way Israel is going through a similar experience now to ours in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Israelis are very patriotic, still, and since virtually all Israelis serve in the military, they have shared experiences that connect them in ways American are not connected. But what you hear repeatedly from old-timers in Israel, and from columnists and bloggers, is that the new generations of Israelis don’t feel the same way about Israel that they did. They don’t share the same spirit of deep devotion to a Jewish state, they don’t have the true pioneering spirit, they don’t recall the miraculous military victories that saved the fledgling country from annihilation, they don’t advocate for the greatness of Israeli society in the same way. They don’t sing songs about how wonderful and beautiful Israel is.

And, in a way, the critics are right. The younger generations of Israelis are different. They are more international in interest and vision. They are extremely fluent in technology. They have widely divergent political views. They love Israel, but they also see many other ways things can be and work.

It’s what happens when a society grows up and matures. The high ideals and excitement of the formative period gradually diminish, and people take for granted the good things they enjoy and that others have sacrificed to create and preserve. It’s not really a bad thing: it’s just different. My guess is that Israeli patriotism will become a different but still very potent element in Israeli society: more thoughtful, less reflexive, more nuanced.

In the wake of these peaceful protest movements, and against the divisive rhetoric of the past few years, I hope that can happen for us here in America, too. Right now, patriotism seems to imply a gung-ho, almost hostile quality that is far from the shared values and visions that it should represent. It has been nearly weaponized and associated with hatred rather than respect, tolerance, and the openness that is Americanism at its best.

Actually, what people are doing this spring and summer by marching against racism and police brutality is patriotic and incredibly American. It is a way of saying, “This is my country! I care about it and love it. I want it to reflect the best values. I want to fix it.”

You see, patriotism can lead people to do great things, or terrible things. But successful societies need the glue that common ideals give us. We need a patriotism based in the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good, of ideals that have meaning and require effort.

In the words of the 2nd stanza of what I’ve always believed should be our national anthem, the lovely song America the Beautiful:

America! America!

God mend thine ev’ry flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law.

On this 4th of July, I pray that we celebrate those qualities that make us a truly great nation, and pledge to work to mend those flaws and bind ourselves into a nation that can crown its good with brother, and sisterhood, from sea to shining sea… in a way that we seem to have forgotten about, but are perhaps coming to recognize is what we really, at our best, can be, should be, must be. Even, in this year without fireworks.

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