Thoughts on the 5th of July

Because this is what I do these days, I was driving around the East Bay yesterday. Oakland, in particular, seems to have a custom in which not just a centralized organization sets off fireworks (though I imagine some do) but lots of people do. As I drove down the streets, I occasionally dodged explosives while others went off above my head.

Fireworks are a celebration of the war and imperialism in which this country was born and upon which it has existed for all but sixteen calendar years of its existence.[1]And so this celebration saddened me, even as people wished me—and I was compelled to wish in return—a “Happy Fourth.”

But I was also thinking of home, where fireworks are forbidden, presumably due to the fire danger, but where neighbors set them off anyway. Here, the displays conflate patriotism with a defiance of authority. Local governments, but not the corporations who make the fireworks or the corporations that make unfathomable amounts of money selling weapons, are the enemy.

And I wondered if those neighbors considered that in their defiance they echoed the Confederacy in a still never really settled war[2] that pitted the South, in defense of its “peculiar institution”—slavery—against a North determined to keep the country together.[3]

I thought as well of Rabbi Michael Lerner’s suggestion that we not “focus only on what is wrong with America, thereby handing to the extremists the banner of being the only pro-American voice.”[4] With respect, I disagree.

Lerner advocates that we “raise a fork” to numerous accomplishments in this country. Many of these ‘accomplishments’ are, at best, incomplete; they reflect conflicts between subaltern people and elites that, in a humane society, would not have arisen in the first place. Even as Lerner lists them, he is compelled to acknowledge the viciousness[5]with which elites deployed private security, police, and sometimes even military forces against protest.[6] For me, these are things to mourn and certainly not to celebrate.

And where Lerner praises the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, I notice a country that styles itself as a leading force for human rights around the world, even as it embraces dictators as allies and refuses to acknowledge a wider scope of human rights adopted by nearly every other country in the world.[7] I notice a country whose inspiration lay partly in the Quebec Act, passed by a British government thankful to American Indians for their support in the French and [American] Indian War, that reserved land to Indians, and that colonists saw as an unacceptable impediment to their westward expansion.[8] Here, I see only hypocrisy.

Lerner decries the bigotry of the Right but, like many, many others on the Left, fails to articulate a vision for this country that acknowledges not only the Right’s power but the simple fact that these folks, too, are human beings living in this country. Even after they succeeded in putting Donald Trump in the White House, it seems as if the Left’s only solution is to defeat authoritarian populism at the ballot box, when in fact, the result last year was, in significant part, about people who have too long been defeated, arguably since the Civil War,[9] and exploited by the Republican Party elite.[10] Peace does not lie in imposing upon them what they will see as a dictatorship of the Left, but as we seek to do so, we should remember that they’re the ones clinging to their guns.

So as I drove around yesterday, I was thinking that we would have been better off had this country never been founded and that this was anything but a “Happy Fourth of July.”

  1. [1]David Benfell, “United States History of War,” May 24, 2015, https://parts-unknown.org/dokuwiki/doku.php?id=military:united_states_history_of_war&s[]=military&s[]=history
  2. [2]Alyssa Rosenberg, “From slavery to Ferguson, Ken Burns sees an unfinished Civil War,” Washington Post, September 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/09/08/from-slavery-to-ferguson-ken-burns-sees-an-unfinished-civil-war/; Paul Rosenberg, “The South won the Civil War: White men, racial resentment, and how the Bitter Minority came to rule us all,” Salon, December 8, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/12/08/the_south_won_the_civil_war_white_men_racial_resentment_and_how_the_bitter_minority_came_to_rule_us_all/; Ted Widmer, “Did the American Civil War Ever End?” New York Times, June 4, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/did-the-american-civil-war-ever-end/
  3. [3]Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What This Cruel War Was Over,” Atlantic, June 22, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/
  4. [4]Michael Lerner, “Celebrating July 4th in the Trump Years,” Tikkun, July 3, 2017, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/celebrating-july-4th-in-the-trump-years
  5. [5]Michael Lerner, “Celebrating July 4th in the Trump Years,” Tikkun, July 3, 2017, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/celebrating-july-4th-in-the-trump-years
  6. [6]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  7. [7]Noam Chomsky, The Umbrella of U.S. Power: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Contradictions of U.S. Policy (New York: Seven Stories, 1999).
  8. [8]Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).
  9. [9]Alyssa Rosenberg, “From slavery to Ferguson, Ken Burns sees an unfinished Civil War,” Washington Post, September 8, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/09/08/from-slavery-to-ferguson-ken-burns-sees-an-unfinished-civil-war/; Paul Rosenberg, “The South won the Civil War: White men, racial resentment, and how the Bitter Minority came to rule us all,” Salon, December 8, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/12/08/the_south_won_the_civil_war_white_men_racial_resentment_and_how_the_bitter_minority_came_to_rule_us_all/; Ted Widmer, “Did the American Civil War Ever End?” New York Times, June 4, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/did-the-american-civil-war-ever-end/
  10. [10]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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