My inner six-year-old has always loved the Fourth of July. I still savor the taste of a hot dog fresh off the grill. It’s still a thrill sitting on the grass and looking up, hearing the hiss of the rockets followed by the pop and sizzle of bursting colors. They squeeze oohs and ahs out of me as the embers expire and drift quietly back to earth.
There’s something else, too. Being part of a crowd, I feel a connection – not just to others around me, but to the interdependent web of American history. We’re reenacting rituals that have been repeated over a couple of centuries, from sea to shining sea. I picture bygone days of bunting and brass bands and gazebos. I imagine times that I imagine were more innocent.
I remember when I was more innocent.
I think back to a first-grade classroom, where I first heard the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree. To hear my teacher tell it, the father of our country was not only a superhuman being who could toss a silver dollar across a river, but when asked whether he was the culprit who had cut down a cherry sapling, he ‘fessed up, with the immortal words, “I cannot tell a lie.”
It was the beginning of my relationship with my homeland. Like many a relationship, like ones I read about on Facebook, it’s complicated.
Much later, I learned that most historians believe the cherry tree tale itself is probably a lie. A bit like today’s Internet journalism, it was attributed to an unnamed source by Washington’s first biographer, a traveling preacher who was known to exaggerate.
But I learned other fables, with more solid historical foundations. I took to heart phrases like, “All men are created equal,” and, “We, the people,” and “liberty and justice for all.”
It didn’t hurt that I was growing up in the town where America began. At least, that’s what it called itself: York, Pennsylvania, the First Capital of the United States.
Like many a tourist slogan, the story was a bit of stretch. The year after the Declaration of Independence, when the Redcoats had chased the Continental Congress out of Philadelphia, it had settled for nine months in York. In my childhood, a few half-timber buildings remained downtown, to remind us that the city’s glory days were two hundred years behind it.
But I was growing up in the golden age of the American Empire, the age that many people have in mind when they talk about making America great again. As a toddler, I sat in front of our black-and-white TV set and watched pyrotechnics that were even better than fireworks. The majestic Redstone rocket was lifting Americans into space. By the time I was ten, they would be walking on the moon.
It was an age when anything seemed possible. To many an American dreamer, it even seemed possible that in our time, we could end war, poverty and racism.
It seems like a long time ago.
For some, the fall from innocence began as they watched the shooting of a president. For others, it happened a few years later, as they reached draft age, literally staring down the barrel of a gun. For still others, it was the televised spectacles of demonstrators getting clubbed in Chicago or shot down in Ohio.
For me, it started during the summer after ninth grade, the summer of the Watergate hearings. Just the year before, I had been cheering on Four More Years for Richard Nixon. But there was no way to reconcile, “I cannot tell a lie,” with, “I am not a crook.”
Hard on those heels came the hoopla of the Bicentennial. After Tricky Dick was pardoned, it was hard not to feel a little cynical. Especially when my hometown rebuilt its colonial courthouse, the one where revolutionaries had once met, on the banks of a heavily polluted creek that locals called the inky, stinky Codorus.
I graduated from York High a month before the big day. I was in full teenage rebellion, fresh from publishing an underground school newspaper, and I had torn up my ticket into the ruling class. I had been accepted to Harvard, but instead, I was on my way to a cattle ranch, at a small, experimental college in the California desert. Like the Paul Simon song, I walked off to look for America.
What I found, over time, was many different Americas. That’s one thing about America. Every time you think you have her pinned down, she surprises you.
In my college days, I was traveling by thumb. That ribbon of highway took me through all states but two of the lower 48.
The America I discovered was not the one I had grown up with. It was a nation of diverse and beautiful landscapes, from thickly wooded hills and hollers in the east, across the misty Mississippi to endless flatlands that butted up to soaring mountains and stretched on to burnt deserts.
I met people who were just as diverse. Many of them were on the road, like me. Salesmen. Truckers. Hippies. An occasional family in a Winnebago. A long-haul trucker who looked like Kurt Vonnegut and passed me a joint as we climbed the divide into Montana. A paranoid veteran who warned me he had a pistol in his front seat.
My Jack Kerouac vision of America soon collided with a different one, a few months after I got home to York. Fifteen miles away, a nuclear reactor went haywire. For a few days, my mom and I had the experience of being refugees, from Three Mile Island. After our return, I got active – radio-active, you might say – in fighting the electric company and its plans to start the plant back up, after placing us sixty minutes from eternity.
Three years after the accident, voters in three counties held referendums on whether to restart TMI. They said No, in a landslide. But our votes were overruled by five men in Washington, known as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the plant went back to splitting atoms by the Susquehanna River.
By then, I had moved on from the First Capital of the United States. I had moved to the current capital, Washington, D.C. I worked for a nonprofit, where I helped support other activists, who were trying to stop their own Three Mile Islands.
We achieved more than we realized at the time. Although we felt perpetually outgunned, we were throwing enough sand in the gears of the nuclear industry to help it grind itself to a halt. By the end of the decade, 120 reactors had been canceled, and no more were being started.
In the meantime, a few Metro stops from Capitol Hill, it was getting easier to see why democracy had failed my hometown. I had a ringside seat for invading Grenada, training death squads in El Salvador and arming terrorists in Nicaragua. I learned that it had all happened before, in places like Guatemala, Chile and Iran. If you’re not appalled by American history, I decided, you haven’t been paying attention.
But my Noam Chomsky vision of America was not my final stop. When I burned out on making news, I turned to reporting it. As fortune would have it, the first newspaper to offer me a job made me a business reporter.
And so, for the past 30 years, I’ve gotten to see America from the side of the people who actually run it. It’s been a helluva learning experience. I was used to fighting corporate villains, but to my surprise, I’ve met plenty of heroes, as well. I’ve learned that Wall Street is even more berserk than I imagined. But I’ve also seen that when capitalists can make money on something constructive, like organic food or green energy, they can change society faster than activists could ever dream.
That brings my personal search for America up to the here and now. We each take our own journeys from innocence to experience. I’ve been telling mine in the hope that it might bring back some of your own – and in the hope that I’m not the only one whose feelings get complicated around Independence Day. It brings me face to face with a great American paradox: on the one hand, the extraordinary land and people; on the other, the crimes and boondoggles committed in our names.
I love the picnics, parades and fireworks. I celebrate the revolutionary spirit that got it all going. But I feel deeply suspicious of the rah-rah patriotism that goes along for the ride.
I think of that patriotism in religious terms, as a species of fundamentalism. Over the centuries, it’s gone by many names, but the quasi-Biblical language remains the same. It describes Americans as a chosen people and America as their Promised Land. For example:
“Marked and chosen by the finger of God.” That’s what one English settler wrote about his neighbors in Jamestown.
“The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language.” In the heyday of Manifest Destiny, that was written by John Quincy Adams – though to his credit, he later changed his mind.
Today, the fundamentalist buzzword is American Exceptionalism. As Mitt Romney defined it on the campaign trail, “We are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world.”
What’s our role in the world? Here’s an explanation from Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at the National Review:
“Our country has always been exceptional,” he writes. “with a unique role and mission in the world… as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.”
There’s where my suspicion starts. When Americans get to thinking we’re a chosen people, that’s when we start to send armies into places like South Dakota or Iraq. The heathens, we tell ourselves, will thank us for it. As Dick Cheney memorably put it, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
Some people just plain give patriotism a bad name.
But where does that leave us, those of us who love our country but no longer believe in cherry trees, those of us who don’t belong to the United States of Amnesia? Is there a patriotism that celebrates this nation without puffing ourselves up as God’s favorites? That dreams American dreams without closing its eyes to American nightmares?
I believe there is. Like the rah-rah kind of patriotism, it has a religious model. But my model for patriotism lies in Liberal Religion.
In our Unitarian Universalist faith, we like to say that we don’t have a creed. We don’t have fixed ideas about our purpose in the universe. Instead, we have covenants. We covenant to affirm and promote values like inherent worth and dignity. We covenant to try and live those values with one another, in our beloved communities.
What is the United States of America if not a covenant? From the Mayflower Compact to the U.S. Constitution, our founding documents have all been social contracts, not decrees imposed by kings, bishops or deities.
In the Declaration of Independence, 56 signers affirm the value that all men are created equal. They promote the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Their closing words are indeed a covenant, “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” In that regard, it’s also a Declaration of Interdependence.
We know that from the beginning, America fell out of covenant with these values. Some of our founders knew it, too. George Washington owned slaves, but in his will, he set them free. Thomas Jefferson felt guilty but never liberated more than a handful.
And yet, their ringing language inspires us, regardless of whether they lived up to the words they wrote. Over two centuries, those words have turned into a promissory note. One after another, America’s disenfranchised groups have pointed to that note and demanded that America pay up. And because they believed in the promise, the real America came a little bit closer to the ideal one.
The interdependent web stretches from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, from Mother Jones to Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, and to the unsung millions who marched with them. Alongside the patriots who defend us overseas, America has produced a different sort of patriot, one who loves our country by calling it back into covenant. As Clarence Darrow summed it up, “True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else.”
Back in my days of community organizing, I once shared a train ride with a GI who was fresh from basic training. We shared some stories, and he asked me if I’d ever thought about serving my country. I said, “I already do.”
I said early on that America will keep surprising you. She has a way of winning your heart and then breaking it. She will elect a black man as president, and then she will try her best to tear him down. Racism will go underground for fifty years and then try to slouch its way back into the political mainstream. The process of calling ourselves back into covenant never ends.
Which should not surprise us, because being a covenantal nation means that our nature is always up for grabs. There is no fixed meaning to America. Its values wither away unless each generation tests them and finds out all over again what they really mean.
That’s why, when fundamentalist patriots try to hijack our symbols, from Old Glory to the Constitution, it’s no time to get cynical about those symbols. It’s time for other patriots to recapture the flag. On this Independence Day, as I lie back to ooh and ah at another year’s fireworks, I can think of no more patriotic words than these, written in the dark days after 9/11, by my old colleague, Jim Hightower:
“I’ll be double-damned to hell before I meekly allow this banner of democracy to be usurped by political opportunists, corporatists, xenophobes, war-mongers, and fear-mongers who confuse conformity with patriotism, demanding that we be quiet, get in line, and be ‘patriotically correct.’
“Too many true patriots struggled and died to bring our democracy this far. We have no right to be quiet. Stand up! Wave our flag!”