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.
I don’t know the answer, but I do believe we can all celebrate the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Our forefathers got it right and we were fortunate to have George Washington as our first president, because in the early days, he could have been just another ruler, making the rules to to control the power. They got it right…since then it’s gone to hell in a hand basket, and if no one got hurt I’d be for another revolution. Celebrating that day though is still meaningful, to all the Americans I know.
That’s interesting, Sally. I think perhaps the revolution is already beginning.
Well considered post…
Thank you, June.
Anne, you ask so many great questions about Independence Day for Americans, ALL Americans young and old, and this Land’s ancestors and descendants to come. And you hinted to some very sensitive, controversial American history—if you learn equitably and exhaustively our FULL history, I doubt you can ever avoid hitting American nerves and stepping on American toes for exactly what you pointed out correctly: diversity! Vast diversity to be precise.
I want to ask/add some more to your excellent questions, if I may. 😉
What does Lady Liberty—our Statue of Liberty—stand for? What does it represent? A time gone by? Or ideals alive and well today in the U.S.? 🤔
The National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. says this about Lady Liberty’s symbolism:
Is this true today? Are these ideals of ‘freedom for all‘ protected for ALL Americans once they have arrived or are they for 2nd, 3rd, 5th-generation Americans? Does Lady Liberty represent total equality in America for ALL Americans 24/7, 365-days every year? Or does she now represent liberties for specific, advantaged demographic groups?
Anne, I do know this about July 4th and Independence Day—many Americans LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to blow-up things, or at least freely obliterate them with guns and assault weapons. 😉 😛
Thank you for your thoughtful response, Professor.
It saddens me to see how divisions have been created and expanded over the years. There is so much to gain from and to celebrate in diversity that it baffles me when it is derided.
In addition, at this point I expect that many, many families can point to multi-ethnic origins within their number. How can anyone want to divide families for political gain?
As for blowing things up, I wish that the urge was limited to CGI in films. I just don’t understand it in real life.
Goodness Anne, you’ve reminded me of a never-ending long list of humanity’s greatest achievements & advances due to diversity and collaborating TOGETHER with those different peoples/cultures in order to progress! The list is too long to name them here.
However, there is one scene in one of my most favorite fondest films (The Imitation Game – 2014) that sums up well I think exactly what you allude to by diversity. ‘Why would we ever want or need “normal”‘? Singularity? Monism? No, those are recipes for extinction. I’m sure you’ll recognize the scene, film, and just how very apropos it is to what you’ve stated…
OK, now I have to see the whole film!
I think you will like it. 😉
I am ever so behind on reading your posts, and stubbornly reading the oldest ones before I read the current ones.
I wanted to weigh in as one American about the 4th of July. On that day I was depressed; not excited about being an American. My husband and I were thinking about America’s founding fathers, and how many of them owned people as property, commonly called slaves. It taints their words, in my opinion. The Declaration of Independence was not for everyone when written, and is still not for everyone.
My German and Swedish ancestors came to America (the Midwest) and were given land by the government that had been freshly taken away from Native Americans. To gain land at the expense of others is not a heritage of which I am proud.
America is a violent country, and that sickens me. My daughter loves her job as an elementary music teacher, but decided to take a leave of absence rather than expose herself and her family to COVID-19. I was musing that she has a dangerous job, but then realized that’s always been true, as in America, people with assault weapons kill students attending school. The only thing that stopped that was not having students in school buildings last Spring.
I have to remember there are a whole bunch of Americans who feel the same as me. I hope enough of us show up in November.
First, thank you so much for going back and reading old posts! I very much appreciate your attention to the blog.
I am sorry that your reflection on America’s history saddened you. I understand and empathize from the point of view of a former Brit who has been embarrassed by Britain’s colonial past. In school we only learned how great and glorious it all was; we were never taught the whole sordid truth, and I’m sure the same is true for you.
What a sad commentary it is that an elementary school music teacher’s job can be considered dangerous. I shake my head. But, you are not wrong. Our schools in Canada are opening up but giving parents the choice of home schooling if they prefer. On the first day of my grandson’s new school year, three grade 10 classes were sent home because one student was diagnosed with Covid 19. It is awful, but I really don’t think we can all wait for a vaccine. It could be another year or 18 months before that is available to the general public.
There is a lot to be concerned about, for sure, and I hope that those issues will inspire more people to vote, despite the roadblocks!
You are welcome; I enjoy your posts. And yes, I certainly got the white, conqueror’s version of US history when i was growing up.
My daughter has just told me her school board voted a few minutes ago, to use the hybrid model: 1/2 of the students attend on Monday and Tuesday, the other half attend on Thursday and Friday. When not in school they will have online classes. The small town she teaches in has an 8% rate of COVID-19 cases right now. I agree, it isn’t going away, and we need to figure out how to safely navigate things like public education. It isn’t for the feint of heart!
I like that hybrid model. It makes much more sense to have half the number of people in the building than to try to get children to obey distancing and masking rules.
Yes, I think it makes more sense too.