When you watch Independence Day celebrations and hear the patriotic songs, it looks and sounds as though the people of the USA are all celebrating the same thing, doesn’t it? Today, I’m beginning to think that the perception is wrong both for the observer and the celebrant. Yes, Americans are independent of British rule, but that is about the only thing they have in common. It seems to me there is more than one America.
For context, I have seen quite a few American cities, highways, and tourist locations. When I was a college instructor I went annually to conferences that were often in American cities. I have visited New York, San Antonio, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, Charleston, San Francisco, and probably a few more cities in my travels. In addition, I have driven from Edmonton Alberta to San Jose California every year for ten years, through Montana and Idaho sometimes and through Oregon and Washington at other times. So, those are my wide-ranging bone fides for knowing a little bit about America. Admittedly, most of that knowledge is not in depth but, nevertheless, it gives me many informative snapshots.
What has impressed me is how much variation there is in the American character. I know that Americans love their country and are very loyal to it, but the agricultural communities have a completely different experience of life from the inner-city people. The immigrant who runs a restaurant in a small town has a different relationship with their neighbour than the person who is a day labourer waiting for work outside Home Depot in a big town or the domestic help in city suburbs. The descendants of slaves in the south have a different sense of history from their counterparts in the north. And, they are all adjusting to different climates and landscapes.
Regional differences are true of both Canada and England, too, but the rah-rah of patriotism is much louder in the USA. Americans fly more flags, salute more soldiers, and create more films about heroes than the other two countries combined. So, why all the hoopla? My English sensibilities cause me to wince sometimes when I think that it is all a slightly embarrassing display; the truly proud don’t need to tell us of their accomplishments because we already know what they are.
At other times, as a woman, it seems to me to be a form of masculine puffery. Like peacocks, it is necessary to sometimes to shake the tail feathers to draw the attention of the peahens — except that I can’t figure out who are the peahens in this analogy.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the America that I know and the Americans I have met. It is a glorious place with welcoming and impressive people. I have been accepted everywhere and have benefitted from my professional and personal relationships. So, why does the excessive patriotism bother me? I think it is because it paints with too broad a brush. The America that I have seen is much more complex and varied than the celebrations suggest.
On television and in films in recent years I see an effort to incorporate more of the many ethnic identities that I see in my travels. On the political stage, however, it feels like pulling teeth to try to incorporate people who are not of northern European heritage. That is part of the dissonance I feel. But, it isn’t just about ethnicity. It is also about regional experiences. Very few of the people I have met have anything in common with the policy-makers.
So, what am I trying to say? Although I am formulating this as I write, I think it comes down to a feeling that Independence Day has lost its focus and is no longer a celebration for all Americans. It has gone from using symbols to becoming a symbol in and of itself. What that symbol represents, however, is not clear. What do the flag-waving and the fireworks represent? I don’t know any more. I doubt that the end of British rule means much to American children today, and I’m sure it is only vaguely appreciated by non-European newcomers.
The patriotism I see in England and Canada doesn’t feel quite as forceful as it does in the U.S.. Much like American Independence Day, Canada Day has some city parties and flag-waving, and the politicians make patriotic speeches just the same. It is a similar kind of national party, but the Canadian celebrations are more about celebrating our diversity and eating different foods. In Alberta, fireworks are illegal so our parties don’t compare to those in the United States in that regard, except for a few tightly controlled official displays, but it’s all a day off in the summer with family-friendly outdoor events.
I don’t think England has a day for patriotic fervour although Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th comes close. They celebrate with fireworks and bonfires the person who tried to blow up parliament. Hmmm. That is so far from patriotism that it’s really quite funny.
So, who or what is being celebrated on Independence Day, and why? Do the celebrations include everyone? And, is everyone celebrating the same concept of America? Those are the questions I am asking myself on July 5th. No solid conclusion here; just a lot of questions.