Opinion

Fourth of July: Which America Will You Celebrate?

David Stone
Fourth of July: Which America Will You Celebrate?

I got up early Sunday morning, hours before the full horror of the murders at Pulse, Orlando’s lively gay nightclub, were known. For the rest of the morning, it was like an ugly storm that would not let up.

Ironically, this was a day I set aside to write about Fourth of July, Independence Day, fireworks planned for Roosevelt Island, yet here I was miserably distracted by contemporary fireworks that continue to upset our nation in its 240th year.

When I was a kid, my dad drove us to the county fairgrounds in Montrose, Pennsylvania, and allowed my brothers, sister and me to sit on the roof of his car while fireworks lit up the night sky.

That was a different America, the comfortable one where we felt safe before the 1960s political assassinations, struggles for civil rights, disillusion of the undeclared Vietnam War and criminal corruption in the Nixon era.

None of these things were possible in the Ozzie and Harriet America where watching fireworks from the roof of a car was the delight of the summer. Or so we imagined.

I have never been able to fully let go of that ideal America, even as it becomes more clear that it wasn’t what it appeared to be. 

Tempted at times to discard that comfortable vision, I haven’t followed the impulse because the America I thought I knew then harbors an important message: we know what American greatness looks like.

The America we can build has its template.

Land of the Free / Home of The Brave

Dwight Eisenhower’s America had won the war and ended the genocide Nazi Germany burned across Europe. If ever there was a clear case for good triumphing over evil, this was it. Magnanimous in victory, we poured resources into rebuilding a ravaged continent.

Think about it. Europe remains united in peace seventy years later, home to democracies from East to West. Without America, the story would be different.

In the long shadow of World War II, President Truman finally integrated our armed forces, and a few years later, President Eisenhower followed the lead of the Supreme Court, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, by sending in troops and federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to force Little Rock to accept nine black students into a previously all white high school.

It’s disconcerting now to know that, during the war, America women entered the work force in large numbers for the first time. They were vital because so many men were needed in uniform.

The really disconcerting part of the story, though, is that, after the war, most women were asked to return to traditional domestic roles, their “place,” as the saying went, being in the kitchen.

The American economy roared. The white middle class thrived. Pride in being American, pledging allegiance to American ideals, was seldom challenged.

This was the “and of the free, and the home of the brave,” or so the narrative was told. 

But the decade turned with a young, charismatic President taking office. Images of Camelot, a staple of the mass media at the time, hid tensions that soon ruptured the seams of the greatest American Dream.

An American Dream With Missing Parts

 Maybe it was a long-simmering cultural pot that boiled over or just a perfect storm of forces colliding at once. Whatever it was, the 1960s crashed onto the world stage. Fifty years later, the dramas remain unfinished.

Anyone dismayed at the state of things in the United States today needs to step back long enough to take an objective look — if stepping back is still even possible.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law a little more than fifty years ago. Most Americans alive today never saw America when segregation among races was standard in many states. Even where it wasn’t written into law, it was frequently respected in traditions.

Not only was our country traditionally unequal, many of us, maybe even most, preferred keeping it that way.

I mention civil rights in terms of race because those advances, in retrospect, seemed to make the tipping point after which every discriminated against group followed that vivid example.

Women’s rights entered the stage, a predictable next step in the push for equality. Before long, gay men and women came out of the shadows to demand their place in the sunlight. 

On and on, groups have pushed for more equitable treatment, insisting that it’s time for America to live up to the ideals many of us believed were there when we watched fireworks celebrating them in our childhood.  

July Fourth, 2016, Coming Up

When we step back from the mass media narrative… Let’s be honest, our newspapers, radio and television stations are there for advertisers, not for truth; if a clear view seeps in, it has to fight for space above or between blaring commercials.

But if you step back from the narrative relentlessly in front of us, what do you see?

Each of us has his or her own vision, but what I see is a country that, in the last fifty years, has absorbed more change, more nonviolent revolution than in the nearly two centuries preceding it. The order of things is changing, and it’s almost all for the better.

You don’t have to be my age to be amazed that transgender people are not just stepping forward but demanding fair treatment, that the successful presidency of a black man will likely fold into that of our first woman in the highest office, that small wars exist but the giant wars of the past seem to be over, that the social curse of violent crime is at an all-time low.

No question, we have a long way to go. Women and minorities continue to be held back from full participation and fair pay in job markets. Discrimination over sexual orientation is as embedded in our culture as is racism. It’s true for both that the elements are so commonplace, it’s hard to see them. They are part of the American background.

Even so, enormous strides have been taken and will continue to be, but there is a cost. Incredible stress generated by rapid change has many of us wondering who we are. What does it mean to be American now?

Does all the violence in places like Orlando mean we’ve gone collectively mad? Do we need so many guns and assault rifles? Is the federal government really bent on destroying our rights and turning us into slaves as websites scream? Will we ever calm down enough to begin building America again?

The fact is, in spite of the daily feed of negative news, that we never stopped building a better America, one more tolerant and generous than the agitators want us to see.

We learned to accept, even celebrate, gay marriage, didn’t we? Aren’t most of us disgusted by racial discrimination whenever we see it? Haven’t we voted a woman to one step away from the highest office in the land?

Let the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders trash talk . Another great source of American pride is our freedom of speech. Neither of them see the country I see, one so different, so much better for all the struggle, than the one hidden from me when I as a boy.

Happy Birthday, America! is what I plan to say in a few weeks. My country, you’ve done it again.

 

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