It’s the Fourth of July. Independence Day here in the United States, except that, at least where I’m from, we never say Independence Day. It’s always just the Fourth of July.
I’m not feeling particularly patriotic. Truth be told, I never feel particularly patriotic. I know too much about my country and its history; my feelings about it are always conflicted. The bad side is on full display this year, with people, including children, being abused at our borders and tanks on parade in our Nation’s Capital, but the U.S. has never been the almost-Utopia we were raised to believe in.
I don’t have much in the way of ties to other countries. I’m Anglo, a mix of various European heritages, mostly from Ireland, Scotland, and England, with perhaps some from the Netherlands, but most of my people came here before the American Revolution, with the most recent coming before the Civil War.
A good deal of the history of my country is the history of my family, and while there are things to be proud of, there are a lot of terrible things just under the surface. It is hard, in this day and age, not to be more aware of the bad than the good.
Back in the 1960s, the right wing slogan was “America: Love it or Leave it.” To which my response was “America: Fix it or Fuck it.” We’ve made a few steps toward fixing some of it, but we’ve still got a very long way to go.
But I’m not leaving. I’ve never wanted to be an expatriate. I like to visit other places, spend time there, fantasize what life might be like there, but my roots are too deep in this country.
And yes, I know I’m living on stolen land. In the beginning of These Truths, the historian Jill Lepore points out that 70 million people were living in the Americas at the time the European conquest began. There were only 60 million in Europe.
Here in Oakland, we often start meetings with a reminder that we’re on Ohlone land. But even here in the progressive center of the U.S.A., that is just lip service. After all, we have people living in tents under highway overpasses because of the profits to be made from real estate; doing anything that recognized the Ohlone should have rights to the property that has made so many rich would upend things to a degree that I suspect few are ready for.
Then there’s slavery, the other original sin that underlies our country. Slavery and racism. Most of the people I see living on the streets of Oakland are African American, and I know damn well that the things that left them in those circumstances have more to do with blatantly racist policies and half-hearted efforts to fix them than with any personal failings or mental health issues.
Right now we have children in cages at our borders and guards paid by our tax dollars telling women to drink out of the toilet. The telling point of just how bad the conditions are in these places is that the guards treated a Congressional delegation badly. They felt free to mock them and didn’t even bother to hide how bad things were, because they figured it didn’t matter.
Think about that for a minute: agents of the Customs and Border Protection agency don’t think they have to show respect to members of Congress. We already knew they weren’t cooperating with attorneys for the people they’re holding or with ordinary citizens trying to hold them accountable.
I hope the House of Representatives is going to initiate action to show them how wrong they are, but there are a lot of people, even those who despair of our current policies, who don’t want to upset business as usual even when it’s clear how far off the rails the country has gone.
I sympathize with that. It would be nice if a small bit of political change would fix everything. I’m getting too old to enjoy chaos. But the accumulation of evil in my country is starting to frighten me even more than upheaval would.
There is good underlying the United States. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are worth fighting for. The First Amendment and other parts of our Constitution are worth fighting for. Those words may have been written by white men, many of whom owned slaves, with only themselves in mind, but that doesn’t make them bad concepts.
But we can’t stop there, not if we want to create the kind of country that should be leading the world.
This Fourth of July, let’s reflect on how to fix the United States of America instead of waving flags and shouting “U.S.A.” I don’t live in an exceptional country, but I’d really like to.