On Saturday, I sat on an ice chest on the lawn overlooking Almaden Lake, in a space designated for the families of the pyrotechnic workers and sound technicians — sun-baked men in cargo shorts and Oakleys, carrying walkie talkies and pot bellies — who scampered across the grounds in preparation for the night. The residents of Los Gatos, California, had gathered in hundreds to see the show and celebrate the holiday. There were Americans — from myriad backgrounds and, assumably, beliefs — who had come together under one pretense: to show their pride.
By now, if you’ve kept up with my column, you know how much of a critic I am. But for a moment, even a crank like myself couldn’t deny the warm fuzzies I got from watching people who couldn’t have been more different united by the love they shared for an ideal.
Because that’s what they were actually celebrating, whether they knew it or not — an ideal.
The United States, I think most people would agree, is not the nation it could be. Where most citizens diverge, though, is on why that is. And if you sift through any news articles nowadays, you’re certain to come across talk of “culture wars.” Americans appear to be polarized on just about every topic you can think of.
What’s more, Americans are commonly portrayed as obstinate people, and even our term for the division — “culture wars” — implies a slippery relativism where we cannot find any traction on which to make progress. “You can’t change my mind, and I can’t change yours” seems to be the deal most Americans have resigned themselves to. This kind of thinking leads to social stagnation at best and to violence at worst. But some of the more banal consequences have come to stand in as a kind of entertainment, if you’ve ever seen the “flame wars” that erupt on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Yet many citizens came together Saturday. And as the San Jose sun sank lower in the sky, I watched kids chasing one another in the glow of dusk and wondered if the adults they weaved in and out of were any more aware of why they were celebrating. Fireworks and explosions are fun, but could a cheap thrill really be the reason so many people had come out to sweat and bake in 90-degree weather? Maybe.
Why, in their minds, were they all feeling pride, joy and gratitude at the thought of being Americans if they were really as divided as the news suggests?
The reason has to do with the ideal of freedom, which the United States presents to its citizens and to the citizens of the world as the “milk of life” — the stuff that sustains us, even in times of hardship and misfortune. Freedom means everything to us as citizens of this country. When our soldiers kill people of other nations or are killed themselves, we invoke the name of freedom. When an individual commits a serious crime against society, our method of punishment is the denial of his or her freedom. And when we want to punish another country for crossing ours, we remove the linguistic reference to that country in our terms for things and replace it with “freedom,” a la “freedom fries.”
But there is also the freedom that many of us long for — the freedom that is denied us by our government.
We lack the freedom to use drugs. We lack the freedom to express our gender and sexuality. We lack the freedom to abortions and other reproductive rights. We lack the freedom to end our lives with dignity. We lack the freedom to eat whatever the fuck we want. We lack the freedom to exist in public spaces without fear of harassment or violence just because of what we look like.
So when we celebrate freedom, we’re celebrating a banner term that all of us can get behind, and the rest of the Fourth of July is very much in line with that. It’s easily accessible to all. It’s easily digestible (but maybe not the hot dogs).
Who doesn’t like freedom? Who doesn’t like eating or fireworks?
And if you don’t partake? Well, you’re branded as unpatriotic or a joykill. If people protest the Fourth of July, other Americans take issue with their loyalty and their reasons for protesting instead of examining the paltry reasons that we who do celebrate find common cause over. Food? Dazzling spectacles? Vague ideals?
If the measure of patriotism is how much you enjoy seeing stuff explode to the tune of Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful” as you drink a cold beer, I’d say that’s pretty low-hanging fruit.
If we really want to be united, then we need to abandon the all-or-nothing solutions we can’t seem to stop implementing. We need to address personal responsibility and education, and opt for reasonable or creative concessions.
But hey — fireworks are great, and at least we can tell ourselves that we’re still united for a single day in July.
My fellow Golden Bear Adonay frames it another way: “I think that the barbecues, the beer and the fireworks present themselves as superficials at first glance. It’s what Americans, and especially our generation, does best, right? But who’s to say that these traditions don’t represent some yearning for a cohesive American identity?”
Zion Barrios writes the Monday column on social topics that rarely enter open conversation. You can contact him at [email protected].