Complicating the Fourth of July

Declaration-of-IndependenceI planned to write a post exploring the implications of July 4th, but became overwhelmed realizing it would necessarily have to touch on patriotism, nationalism, symbolism, colonialism, and imperialism, at least. Much is wrapped up in an apparently simple holiday commemorating the independence of the United States from Great Britain. And I realized that is what does not sit well with me, the simplicity with which July 4th is usually treated.

For many people, the day is no more than a welcome respite from waged labor. That perspective, with its inherent expression of alienated labor and preference for spending time with family and/or community instead of at work, could be seen as anti-capitalist in a certain light and is worthy of consideration.

But I am more concerned with the underlying narrative that implicitly goes along with the acceptance of July 4th as something to be commemorated and the often consequent proactive, uncritical impulse towards patriotism and jingoism.

It is not my intent to tell anyone to celebrate July 4th or not. It is my intent to call for reflection on what one is celebrating. Most of us operate on a worldview where many behaviors and attitudes are taken as a given. The answer to “Why?” we do certain things is simply “Because.”

– “Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July?”

– “Because that is just what we do.”

If pressured, one can probably throw in a “freedom,” or a “democracy,” or a “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ask for a definition of any of those concepts and how it relates to July 4th and things get a little more messy and/or hostile.

This is not to say that someone who thinks this way is bad or unintelligent. Not in the least. It is to illustrate a point. And that point is the functioning of what Antonio Gramsci called “common sense,” where we largely unwittingly adopt and act on perspectives and behaviors that are not inherent to the individual but fed to us via society and culture. What appears as normal and given is in fact merely a narrative – just one way of seeing things – constructed by and in service of those at the top. “Common sense is established by a process of consent to ruling class attitudes and interests which are thereby accepted by society at large as being in its own general interests. What is specific and partial is therefore universalized and what is cultural is naturalized to the point of being taken for granted in a view of the world as simply ‘the way things are’.“

To celebrate July 4th – or to do anything else, for that matter – just simply “because” is problematic. But in order for it to be problematic, one has to become aware that “common sense” is at work. As it seems natural, “common sense” behaviors and attitudes can elude detection and identification. But when one becomes aware of it, what at first appeared simple becomes more complex. And that complexity can continually unfold. For example, just as I complain about a simplistic embrace of July 4th, those further along may chide my critique of July 4th as simplistic and buying into concepts they view as another layer of “common sense.”

Critically mulling over the significance of July 4th is not a very appealing notion. However, critically mulling over basically everything is how we become more engaged with the world around us, how we in part gain a sense of agency, and begin to see that we can shape this world, rather than experience it as something happening to us.

If one can critically review July 4th and all the –isms that accompany it, and upon that review decide it is still something s/he wants to celebrate, that is his/her informed decision, and though I may disagree with it, I respect the effort that went into reaching it.

To arrive at and accept different conclusions is to reject the monoculture of “common sense.” The sociological complexity of our reality allows for a multitude of perspectives, which additionally has the positive effect of cultivating empathy. Instead of rigidly and simplistically holding onto a certain way of thinking “because that’s the way things are,” having a more open thought process creates space for awareness that others come from different places and different experiences leading them to interpret events – such as July 4th – differently, and to assign their own particular meaning to the day. No one’s meaning is inherently right or wrong, what is important is that it is their own.

I, for one, was once militantly anti-July 4th and would use the opportunity to post anti-U.S. messages on social media, deliberately intended to incite. If I call on others to examine their assumptions, I must do so myself and concede that such posturing was simplistic in the opposite direction, a chance to vent frustrations “just because” it was July 4th, without giving it much thought. While I still won’t be celebrating July 4th, I do so from a hopefully more thoughtful perspective, attempting to be respectful of how others meet this day from their own positionality.

One thought on “Complicating the Fourth of July

  1. We slept in, went to home depot so we could spend the day working on home projects, ate pancakes, watched a movie, and have zero desire to celebrate with anyone or pay any homage to this effing country! We know you would be proud of us. – seema and josh

    Liked by 1 person

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