The Easy Patriotism of July 4th


Thank you for telling your story–about your journalism work in the wake of September 11, and about your mother’s passing, too.

My story is simpler. July 4th is an easy holiday for me to ignore, for an entirely earthly reason: the food is terrible. Hot dogs, mayonnaise-based salads, and cake topped with Cool-Whip violate the most important rules of holidays: they should taste good. Also, the music is so, so bad, and growing up, I lived in state where fireworks were illegal. So there wasn’t much too lose by ignoring it.


Above, a picture of what Jell-O calls “Easy Patriotic Flag Dessert.” I love dessert, but easy patriotism makes me queasy. 

Things got more complicated when I married a Mennonite man with a family history of military service–including people who are still part of the army. Even though I’d been to a military wedding in his family, it didn’t occur to me that 4th of July would treated like a meaningful holiday. So I didn’t even think about it when we drove up to the family 4th of July picnic with “Fuck War” bumper sticker. (This was in maybe 2003? 2004? The young ‘uns here might not remember it, but we were really still at the start of a long and pointless war back then.)

Being a pacifist is countercultural, and sometimes that culture is as close as home.

The funny part, for me, is that I’m a total romantic about the founding period. Now, I also know that the founders were racist and sexist and classist and violent, but the key idea still takes my breath away in its boldness: that a person (okay, a property-owning white man) has rights not based on the notion of “blood” but on the fact that they occupy an individual human body, that bodies have rights.

There are problems with it, I know. Here is what Michel Foucault has to say:

“We are used to thinking that the expression of individuality, for example, or the exaltation of individuality is one of the forms of man’s liberation… But I wonder if the opposite is true. I have tried to show that humanism was a kind of form, was this sort of fabrication of the human being according to a certain model, and that humanism does not work at all as a liberation of man, but on the contrary works as an imprisonment of man inside certain types of moulds that are all controlled by the sovereignty of the subject.” 

But I’m not there. (My husband is a post-humanist. Academically speaking, it’s a mixed marriage.)  That founder’s dissolution between king and God means that our family histories aren’t our futures, which is an incredibly useful message for people who grow up in dysfunctional homes to here. It means that whatever status our bodies have been assigned by those in power is is not true about us, no matter how many times the bodies of women or people of color or people with disabilities are demeaned.

Sadly, this isn’t the message of July 4th in the US.

And, as a family, we are critically minded about displays of patriotism. So, no–no pledge. No national anthem; when the school band plays it, my son, who is in the brass section, sits out. No flags–not flying from the house, not on t-shirts, not even on Forever Stamps. We love America, but we think those things are symbols of its worst parts: coercion, militarism, imperialism, the idolization of violence.

So, what will we be doing on July 4? My children will probably watch the city fireworks from our porch, a safe distance from the sounds of Lee Greenwood. I think that the association with militarism is distant enough not to be meaningful for them; they probably think of marching bands and football as more of a symbol of nationalist violence.

I will be in the UK, participating in a conference on the emotions that inform backlash politics in the US, the UK, and elsewhere. They include patriotism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, anger, rage, hate, fear, anxiety. I’ll be working as part of a larger team of scholars trying to diminish the harmful effects of hate, and my focus is on those who hate. I hope it’s an act of patriotism.




One comment

  1. YMMV. But I found this infographic interesting. Also, as I commented on Joel’s FB post, the fact that we continue debating and aspiring to these ideals I see as a sign of strength. We’ll never get there completely, because we’re flawed creatures. But many of us keep trying.

    Liked by 1 person

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