Happy Fourth of July to a nation that has managed to keep progressing amid a history of conflict and contradictions that continue to this day.
There’s much to celebrate about what this country has achieved and where it may go. There’s also a lot to bemoan about the nation’s direction and festering inequality.
This has been a central theme from the very beginnings of the United States, so it should come as no surprise.
The country has moved forward with myth and contention, and often struggles with the truth.
The current divisiveness — along with the shouting and the anger — is certainly magnified by politics and the media, but it’s there. Recent stunning advancements in society — from the coronavirus vaccines to the election of a Black U.S. senator in Georgia — seem to quickly fade into the background.
To make sense of these disparate aspects of the country, perhaps there should be a renewed push to live up to American ideals, even if those who created them didn’t.
Honest efforts to get at truth grounded in reality and facts — and through the lens of history — would help. That seems like a tall order in the current climate.
For example, the simple notion of trying to get to the bottom of how and why the U.S. Capitol was attacked by Americans on Jan. 6 should be a consensus goal. It’s not, of course, because Republicans in Congress have opposed doing that pretty much every step of the way.
A committee set up by Democrats is moving ahead anyway.
This kind of politics can go both ways, to a degree, at least. Some Democrats in Congress objected to the 2016 presidential election results in more states where Donald Trump won than Republicans did in states carried by Joe Biden four years later, according to a Newsweek fact-check.
This isn’t an attempt at creating a false equivalence — there were more Republicans objecting and they were more organized in their challenge — but it’s still worth pointing out.
Voting results have often been disputed and claims of stolen elections are as American as the notion of ballot-box stuffing. Read up on John F. Kennedy’s hairbreadth victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election and you’ll see that some of what was said then was heard in the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Granted, nobody stormed the Capitol.
Some people truly believe, wrongly, that Trump was robbed of last year’s election. A disturbingly large number of people believe in even wilder related conspiracy theories. What’s worse is there are others who don’t really buy any of that, yet placate or encourage the believers in an effort to gain political power.
Engaging in sharp-edged, and sometimes delusional, politics may seem like an odd route to achieving “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But remember, this is a nation of contradictions. Those are admirable goals, even if they can’t always be achieved.
While we’re on the subject, it’s high time we have a realistic conversation about who and what the “Founding Fathers” really were. They were high-minded thinkers, hard-eyed tacticians and some were slave owners. Their business interests in some cases would benefit from separating from England.
“They could write like angels and scheme like demons,” is how Edward J. Larson opens his book “A Magnificent Catastrophe” about the first real presidential election campaign in 1800.
These people produced a couple of masterpieces: the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They included noble concepts of freedom of speech and religion, legal protections like due process and an overarching sense of fairness and, yes, equality.
In reality, we know those aren’t applied uniformly and never have been — especially for those who are not White men.
The role of some of the founders as slave owners was wrong at the time, of course, but significantly, that shaped the country and its economy throughout its history.
It’s important for people to know — and accept — that this country is, in large part, the product of slave labor and ruthless actions. We must also recognize how that continues to affect society. Cherry-tree myths don’t cut it anymore.
A dispute about slavery is why Independence Day is July 4 and not July 2, according to a National Geographic article on how the Fourth of July came to be.
On the earlier date in 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring independence from England. But there was opposition to a passage in the actual Declaration of Independence document drafted by Thomas Jefferson that criticized King George III for sanctioning the slave trade, according to the article.
He also accused the king of encouraging enslaved people in the colonies to escape and join British forces.
Members of the Congress “knew that the colonies’ economy was largely based on the labor of enslaved people,” National Geographic wrote. “Many delegates, including Jefferson himself, held slaves and personally profited from their labor.
“Instead of laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery, the Congress deleted the controversial passage. . .”
The declaration was then adopted on July 4.
I wish I had learned that in school.
Author Margaret Kimberley has an even more critical take on the founders’ motivations regarding enterprise and protecting slavery in a recent piece titled “The Terrible Origins of July 4th” published in the Black Agenda Report.
Now, I’m not here to douse today’s fireworks and barbecue grills. But maybe separating the myths from reality, or understanding the nation’s contradictions, might give the holiday a new — and greater — meaning. That may be wishful thinking.
At least a broad understanding of how generations of Blacks have been deprived of the ability to build wealth while others did because their ancestors were enslaved and subsequently deprived of economic opportunities might move the country forward. That goes for others who have been wronged and exploited, from Native Americans to Chinese railroad workers to many Latinos.
That’s why the push to ban teaching of ethnic studies or critical race theory or anything that helps enlighten us on how we got here is not just depressing, it’s dangerous. In so many ways, efforts to expand knowledge and understanding has made this country great — opposing that is un-American.
I’m going to end with a line from a favorite song by the great Dave Alvin called “Fourth of July.” It’s about an individual’s grim relationship that could serve as a metaphor for how some people relate to the country today, yet it ends with a glimmer of hope.
“Whatever happened, I apologize. So dry your tears, and baby, walk outside. It’s the Fourth of July.”
Tweet of the week
Goes to Jack Pitney (@jpitney), political science professor, Claremont McKenna College
“I’ve been teaching college for 35 years. I know what students look like when they haven’t done the reading. That’s what @Caitlyn_Jenner looks like.”