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Independence Day has long been my favourite holiday. It doesn’t seem reasonable that it’s my favorite holiday. I’m not a fan of summer; I don’t like heat, I prefer fine dining to cook outs, wine to beer, snow sports to water sports. Yet July 4th sits above the other holidays, religious and secular, as my go to federally authorized day off. Like any good, American patriot, I’m able to love the country and the ideals behind it without overlooking the flaws, but The New York Times’ little video about how America is basically “just O.K.” got under my skin.
The NYT talks about how poorly America fairs in a lineup of other countries, how Bosnia has better rates of infant mortality, how we’re too close to Mexico in poverty stats, how our riches don’t stop a bunch of us from being fat, how a bunch of us don’t even bother to vote. When I told my mom I was writing this article because America is awesome despite all our multifarious faults, she said definitively and with authority “America is NOT awesome!” Her eyes flashed. We don’t agree on much.
One July 4th when I was a kid, my whole town gathered for a bonfire in the public fields out back of Sylvester Elementary and burned an effigy of Muammar Gaddafi. Everyone cheered when the hay stuffed figure succumbed to the flames. Sometimes we sat on the curb and waved little flags while wearing cut offs and watched old men drive old cars through the center of town. We called this a parade.
Another July 4th I went back to see my step-mother and her family, long since having moved away, and smoked pot with my ex step cousin and we thought no one could tell but everyone could tell. We tried not to blow our fingers off lighting up fireworks bought at the corner store. Then we went swimming off the Massachusetts coast in our clothes, because neither of us had brought swimsuits.
Fourth of July in the mid-2000’s was all about going to a friend’s family’s lake house. The house was called Red House, and we got blitzed for days and made elaborate meals. We swam and kayaked in the lake, we played cards until all hours, and presented our talents in impromptu variety shows on the porch. We mostly avoided Lyme Disease, but ended the multi-day shindig covered in mosquito bites.
Now I’m spending it with my kid, and family, lighting sparklers, playing in the warming but glorious Atlantic, making homemade frozen confections we call whipperdoodles, and watching fireflies blip and blink in the scrubby pines of the dunes.
The story of the Constitutional Convention, in that miserable hot summer in Philadelphia, when the delegates had to barricade themselves inside so no one could hear the secrets, captures the American imagination. After casting off the rule of kings, they forged a new kind of government, one based in ideals of fairness instead of hereditary inheritance of power.
Sure, it’s not always perfect, as a nation we don’t always live up to those ideals. We shoot off fireworks and send a circus of tanks rolling down our streets, we drink beer, say “don’t tread on me,” and wipe our patriotic tears with old flags that signify an imperfect past. On Independence Day we get drunk, eat too many chicken wings, and a bunch of us blow ourselves up with illegal fireworks.
We can’t decide who we are as a people because we aren’t one people, we are a bunch of different people united behind a belief in natural rights and equality, at least that’s the idea. At our best, America believes itself to be the best. We believe our country to be exceptional because we are at our best when we feel that way. We can achieve more when we think we are strong, egalitarian, kind, and powerful, then when we think we suck.
Yeah, there’s totally room for improvement but if we keep going with this narrative that we suck why would we even think there’s any reason to keep working to make it better?
In its tacky video montage showing us all the reasons why we’re just mediocre, The New York Times is like a scolding mother who sees only her child’s flaws. It doesn’t even say “hey America, you’re looking pretty good, that’s a great haircut, and it’s terrific that you got the braces off, I’d like to see you doing better in math and healthcare, but overall, I think you’re on the right track.” No, The New York Times is more like my hyper critical grandmother, who used to say “honey, I just want you to know you don’t look as good as you think you do.” Once she even said “oh your hair looks good, but what happened to you face?”
Okay, sure, we know we are not living up to our ideals in all areas. There’s been some tough stuff lately, and we’ve got something of a doofus for a president. In our defense, it’s not the first time we’ve had a doofus for a president, and it won’t be the last. We feel like selfish, shitty, greedy, climate destroying, bastards the whole rest of the year. We American masochists hate ourselves more than the rest of the world does, but it’s not because we suck, it’s because we know what we are capable of. We know we are not living up to our potential, and we desperately want to.
That’s why, on July 4th, Independence Day, when we can say we chucked out King George, we took a risk, we flew by the seat of our pants with barely a cohesive plan, hardly any money, a little backup from the French, nerves of steel, all full of piss and vinegar, we deserve to get drunk, eat a bunch of barbecue, and light off pyrotechnics even if we blow half our fingers off.