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Claude Monet: Impression, soleil levant (1872)
" … a nation ruled by laws we steadfastly refuse to obey on the Fourth of July."

I baffled myself imagining how I might explain July the Fourth to anyone not native to the United States of America. I cannot quite explain it to myself. It tends to contain more mixed metaphors and mixed up factoids than all other holidays combined, yet it does not really count as in any way holy. It stands as our annual contradiction, a serial misrepresentation of our own history, familiar yet fuzzy, clear but curiously alien. Stand downwind of the business end of the typical July Fourth celebration and one might find themselves mistaken that we were celebrating some battle or something, so thick seems the smoke and smell of ozone and gunpowder, but history records no great victory or defeat on this date, just the founding of our country, which came as more of a whimper than an explosion. I might be committing the equivalent of Critical Race Theory here because I'm poking at the myth, looking for substance, a well-recognized crime against common decency.

I'll make no excuses. I've never liked how we celebrate our founding.
In fact, on this day in 1776, our founding fathers, divinely inspired or not, reached a grand and complicating compromise. No shots were exchanged. No fireworks launched. They produced a statement of intentions, if anything, one filled with flowery phrases and double-binding assertions, as fine a work of literary genius as was ever produced as a political statement. It reflected wide-spread discontent without wallowing overmuch in derisive name-calling. It did not proclaim how those colonies would achieve independence, just that they had determined that they would seek it. They had no means to achieve much of anything then, other than a dream several sizes larger than their reasonable capabilities. They were audacious, loquacious, and little else.

How this event translated into fireworks and flag waving, I only hold suspicions. I suspect that politicians found it favorable to their intentions to inflame the passions in ways that celebrating any literary achievement could not. Jingoism rarely fails to inflame public passions, for or against. It works on the gradient between grand and neutral and both sides, when riled, contribute to the resulting spectacle. "You're a grand old flag you're a high-flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave," sung with a backdrop of fireworks and martial cannonade, easily distracts an observer from perceiving the deep contradictions imbedded in the show. That our declaration spawned a few desperate years of military conflict stands without question. Its nobility, its reason, has unquestionably been blown all out of proportion. I do not for a moment buy into the notion that this nation, situated well under God and unquestionably blessed, stands as the last great hope of civilization or that any nation constituted like ours holds any right to rule any world. We've been powerful when we stood on the side of right, and just as powerful when standing up for wrong. We've proudly done both and remain capable of repeating this contradiction, especially if we forget the compromising that founded this potentially great nation.

Our city counsel met in an almost emergency session just a few days before our July Fourth celebration. We'd been suffering under extreme drought and they lacked the power to cancel fireworks sales without, under law, a year's advance notice. They published a resolution instead, cancelling the municipal fireworks demonstration and encouraging citizens to celebrate without recreating any rockets' red glare that evening. The evening after our city counsel met, an errant skyrocket landed on the roof of a Portland apartment building, just a block away from the apartment building where my son and grandchildren live. Two died, four hospitalized, several missing, the apartment building a total loss to fire. We, here, I try to explain to my non-American friends, celebrate belligerence on the Fourth of July, The audacity our founders displayed in their great compromise of a declaration reanimates on this date. After our city counsel encouraged a fireworks-free celebration, rockets lit up the sky deep into the night in our hometown. Piles of spend munitions littered many intersections the following morning as testament to how well we've learned history's lesson. That original compromise resulted, following much suffering, in a nation ruled by laws we steadfastly refuse to obey on the Fourth of July. That's how we celebrate our independence in this self-proclaimed greatest nation on earth. Make sense? Of course it doesn't.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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