Photo courtesy the Chronicle/Christina Koci Hernandez
I’m a little conflicted about the Fourth of July. In fact, I’m a little conflicted about patriotism in general – which I learned is the last refuse of scoundrels – and the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance and the good ol’ USA.
I used to be moved to tears whenever the Star-Spangled Banner was sung at public events. I always rose from my chair and took off my hat and placed my hand on my heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. I was always proud of my country and grateful to be an American.
Then Dubya came along.
The things that he did in my name – the way he tarnished my country’s reputation in the international community and lied about motives and agendas and mandated that I take off my shoes at the airport while doing nothing about the safety of the U.S. port system and took advantage of people’s goodwill and vulnerability in the days and weeks and months after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil – caused me to question the whole “Proud to Be an American” thing.
When Bush signed the civil liberties-stripping Patriot Act into law weeks after September 11 – which authorized the government to monitor any religious and political institution it wants, jail suspects indefinitely without charges, deny lawyers to Americans accused of crimes, and search and seize our papers and effects without probable cause, among other intrusive provisions – I realized that my government wasn’t going to protect me from enemies; my government was an enemy.
Dubya resurrected the whole “You’re either with us or agin us” mentality. Suddenly if you questioned the administration you lost your American-ness. The French opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq so “french fries” became “freedom fries.” The Dixie Chicks became persona non grata for daring to exercise their freedom of speech.
But it wasn’t just the fake cowboy from Crawford who burst my bubble. The wonders of technology and the internet enabled me to communicate with people all over the world – in Germany and Thailand and China and Pakistan and Brazil and Iran – and I saw that people everywhere can be good and complex and kind and well-meaning. The world became far less black and white for me.
I became online friends with a young woman in Tehran who proved it’s possible to like a people and hate their government. She was smart and sensitive and passionate and caring and a bit of a rebel (she said she’d be imprisoned and probably hanged if officials ever found out what she told me about Iran) and whenever we communicated I simultaneously felt glad that my government didn’t oppress its citizens like hers did – yet – and disgusted that the Iranian people were depicted as savage, America-hating radicals by my country’s government and media.
I also made the mistake of reading a book entitled Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know about American History but Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis. I use “made the mistake” because it was a lot easier for me to stand and pledge allegiance to a flapping piece of nylon when I didn’t really know what my country had done to black people throughout history, to Native Americans, to Japanese-Americans during World War II, to hippies and peaceniks in the 1960s, to anyone who didn’t conform and kowtow to the establishment.
This is about the time when I stopped facing flagpoles, putting my hand on my heart and mechanically mumbling words that had lost all meaning for me.
The Fourth of July – like Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day and Christmas and Easter and Dr. King’s birthday – has become just another holiday with an obscured true meaning anyway, just a reason to barbeque and stay home from work and parade down Main Street. I’m pretty sure the thousands of people who, like me, witnessed the most awesome fireworks show in the history of humankind at Stone Mountain, Georgia, last year weren’t reflecting upon the rights and privileges afforded us by the Constitution of the United States. The “oohs” and “ahhs” were for the loud booms and pretty colors. (Anita and I were among the few who sat on our hands when the crowd jubilantly cheered the Confederate flag depicted in lasers on the side of the mountain.)
I don’t think the way people rush out of our houses to assist victims of car crashes is uniquely American. I don’t think the way we help old ladies across the street and take our children to Disney World and watch football together on Thanksgiving are the result of being born here. Wonderful people and magical places and great things do exist here. But not only here.
I’m thankful that I was born in Motown. I understand America’s allure to others and I appreciate the opportunities that come with living here. But I also know there are reasons to be ashamed of my government. So I’ve decided to love my fellow Americans while disliking our rulers. And I won’t be twirling sparklers this holiday weekend. Although I might still barbeque.
If anyone wants to challenge my citizenship, I’ll gladly put a boot up their ass. After all, Toby Keith said it’s the American way.