Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth of July

By Gregory Esteven

It's Independence Day again. A time of family barbecues, fireworks and hawkish rhetoric with syrupy-sentimental overtones. It's time to raise our flags a little higher, pray a little harder and join Sean Hannity in a mindless chorus of self-congratulation: "America is the greatest, best country God has ever given man on the face of the Earth," he recently said. (Obviously, if you don't agree, you're with the enemy. But am I missing something here? Did God "give" us countries on other planets, too? Why specify that it's on Earth? That settlement on Mars may be great, but it can never be the best. That spot is reserved for America! Hmm.)

Clearly I've been put off by the right-wing version of the holiday, along with blind patriotism in general. But I've decided I'm taking the Fourth of July back. Seriously. Why should Hannity have all the fun? Why should he get to define what it means to be part of the United States?

I always enjoyed the celebration when I was a kid, mostly because of fireworks, watermelon and potato salad, staples of summer in Louisiana, rather than any patriotic sentiment. But when I grew up and developed the first sliver of political consciousness, the holiday didn't seem so great anymore. When I thought of the founding of the United States, I was reminded of the unsavory hypocrisies that have marred our history. I'd think of the relentless policies of extermination carried out against the native population. I'd think of the dreadful institution of slavery juxtaposed with the lofty writings of the Founding Fathers, with their idealistic musings on "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for wealthy white men. I'd think of imperialist wars carried out for profit. What could I feel but disgust?

Nevertheless, it's undeniable that this country has a lot going for it, things that are worth celebrating. War hawks often say, with a sense of deep satisfaction, that the freedoms and stability we enjoy were won through blood and sacrifice. They're right, but not in the sense that they intend. They usually say such things to defend an imperialist foreign policy and the military industrial complex, things which I believe have done nothing but curtail freedom and stability around the world. But there are altogether different struggles and sacrifices that have given us something to be proud of.

I'm talking about the struggles to end slavery, racism, exploitation and sexism. I'm talking about struggles for peace and equality. I'm talking about the movement for LGBT rights. The list goes on.

It's ironic that the most ardent supporters of "the system" use the rights and material benefits we enjoy to justify that same system, when the forces of the status quo have fought tooth and nail against every move toward democratization and equality from the time of the nation's founding to the present. Don't get me wrong, I think that the constitutional framework established in this country has proved durable and was decidedly progressive compared to where many other nation states were at the time. But consider that at the time the Constitution was ratified, an estimated half of the "white" male population could not vote because they did not own enough property, or owned no property at all. If only half the white guys could vote, that leaves a lot of people who didn't have the franchise! African American men didn't get to vote until 1870 (and we know how that has been resisted, up until the present day in some districts). Women didn't get to vote until 1920, and Native Americans didn't get to vote until 1924. Better late than never, I suppose.

What about other rights besides the franchise? Workers' rights come immediately to mind. When I hear people lamenting the mere existence of organized labor - and this seems epidemic in these neoliberal days - I remind them that if it weren't for the efforts of the labor movement, we would have eight year-olds toiling in coal mines and wages just high enough to keep us alive. (Though I suspect that our economic system would have collapsed a long time ago if it weren't for the stabilizing benefits that organized labor has won for workers.) Our basic freedoms to organize, to fight for ourselves and our families, have been bitterly resisted by the political and economic establishment. Even now they try to roll back the clock. It's kind of silly, then, to refer to that establishment as though it had bestowed the rights we enjoy, like God providing manna from the sky! The truth is that the establishment, time and again, has been forced to make concessions because we, the working people, have demanded change. That we have anything close to a system with a human face, in other words democracy, is absolutely the result of popular struggle. Democracy doesn't come from anywhere else.

Of course we don't have a monopoly on democracy. In fact the U.S. ranked 17th on the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2006 democracy index (social democracies like Sweden and Iceland, which respect workers' rights better than we do, come in at the top of the list). This should provide us with some incentive to improve.

For all these reasons I'm celebrating the Forth of July this year. I'm celebrating the democratic rights that we have, and the people who fought to make them a reality. I am celebrating to embolden myself for the future, because the fight for democracy, really, is just beginning; what we have now is just a taste of what we can achieve if we put forth the collective effort. The Right doesn't own this holiday any more than they own this country. In fact, let me say something that will infuriate right-wing patriots: It is Left-wing and progressive forces that have made the United States live up to its promises of freedom and democracy, and we're the ones who should be celebrating; it's our victory.


Doug said...

Happy Independence Day to the working class.

The Boss in Spain

Anonymous said...

right on Gregory. Patriotism and "nationalism" aren't the same thing although they are often confused. Patriotism means love of country and its people and culture. Nationalism at least as it has been associated with the right means love of coercive majorities, ruling classes, the status quo, and identification of the nation with the existing social order. That is why, as I said in my blog post before yours, t he people who are most likely to "wave the flag" today are the descendants of those who opposed the American revolution in 1976 and oppose progressive change today. That is why, as popular front Communists said in the 1930s about fascists and reactionaries, we must take the flag away from them.
Norman Markowitz

Gregory Esteven said...


It seems like we were on the same page, hitting at the same basic theme. Though your post is far richer in historical content. I'm very impressed by the case you make for the continuity of the American revolutionary tradition. I've been thinking a lot about discourses that the right (wrongly) dominates. Patriotism and values are two of the main ones. Too many of us on the left have shied away from talking explicitly about these things because of the baggage that the right has loaded onto them, but it's time for that to change. We can't allow them to define what these terms mean.

Gregory Esteven

Anonymous said...

I hope you mean the American Revolution of 1776 NOT 1976-- I missed that one.

Anonymous said...

We can't gregory, but we always have the problem in the U.S. of fighting ruling class ideologies that make "America" and the "American way" as the "right" of every individual to get as rich as possible without any interference from public authorities, even though once people are victimized by the consequences of the rich, they complain about it. We were entirely on the same page.
Thanks anon, for mentioning that embarrassing typo. There was no revolution in 1976 here, as against bicentennial celebrations.
Norman Markowitz