Another part of it happened in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. My reaction wasn’t like that of most other people I knew. I wasn’t thirsty for revenge. I didn’t want to run right out and enlist in the Marine Corps. I was sad. I was numb from the tragedy of it. For months — years, really — afterward, I would dwell on those people aboard the planes, who knew they were going to die. I would think of the men and women who leapt to their deaths from the upper floors of the Twin Towers, preferring to go that way than wait for the fire or the collapse of the buildings. I pondered the passengers of United Flight 93, who realized what they were in the middle of and sacrificed themselves, probably saving the U.S. Capitol or the White House in the process. That’s like something from a movie. I never thought I would witness such courage — such real, selfless courage — in actuality.
When I thought of all those people killed, and when I thought of the people who killed them, I sometimes felt angry. But it wasn’t the sort of anger that made me want to join up and go drop bombs and shoot Arabs. When I considered the bravery of the passengers on Flight 93, I sometimes had a feeling of pride. But it wasn’t pride in my country; it was pride in my species — pride in the best of humanity, which seemed all the more impressive contrasted as it was with the very worst. Those passengers didn’t crash that plane because they were Americans. Would a planeload of Australians or Israelis or Pakistanis not be capable of such an act?
I found Alan Jackson’s post-9/11 song to be a little on the corny side, but sad and beautiful and fitting, mostly. I heard Toby Keith’s obnoxious “let’s go over there and bomb those motherfuckers” anthem, and was appalled. Though maybe that’s just my taste in music.
I’m not a nationalist. I’m not a superficial patriot. I don’t like having the flag waved in my face. I find conspicuous displays of American pride disingenuous. It’s not that I think every person who wears an American flag tie or drives down the street with a red, white, and blue bumper sticker on their truck is automatically insincere — it just seems phony to me. It smacks of insecurity, like when people insist on trumpeting their personal religion. For Christ’s sake, we’re in America, surrounded by Americans — are loud, in-your-face displays of love of country and national loyalty really necessary? Some people, I know, just like hearing their own words in someone else’s mouth. They like slogans and mantras, which they find reassuring. A lot of it is just cheap heat, like when Hacksaw Jim Duggan would stamp his foot and get the crowd going with that “U-S-A!” chant before all of his matches.
So, disdaining the tri-colored trappings of the holiday as I do, what can I possibly get out of Independence Day? I look at the parts of America which I do admire, which I think are noble and beautiful, and which really matter.
There’s so much in the history of the United States to be embarrassed by — slavery; gentrification of the American Indians; treating immigrants, women, gays, name your out-group as second-class citizens; American Idol — that it’s easy for a jaded product of the 1980s and ‘90s like myself to lose sight of the good stuff. It’s a cliché anymore, but the Declaration of Independence is a beautiful document. I find it to be universal. Some strident asshole might tell you that it says “all men are created equal” not “all men evolved equal,” or that we’re endowed by our “Creator” with our rights, meaning they come from God — but I’m not buying that. If you’re like me and willing to go through a few minor contortions to reconcile your appreciation for the Declaration with your virulent secular humanism, it’s a simple matter to recall that even the most atheistic Darwinian evolutionist on the planet will sometimes use the verb “create” to talk about the origin and development of life; and “Creator” could just as well mean the natural process by which humanity, and everything else, evolved to its present state. And if that rings hollow to you, remember that the only thing which the usage of the words “created” and “Creator” proves is that the guy who wrote the Declaration believed that. Doesn’t mean I have to. How I pity people who can’t appreciate things that don’t echo their own ideologies.
Or what about Abraham Lincoln? Another cliché. Our secular saint. The man who freed the slaves. Sure, that’s simplistic. He wasn’t always the most racially sensitive bloke. For most of the Civil War, he was more worried about winning and restoring the Union than about freeing the slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation was valuable more for its symbolism than its legal power, and it was informed more by Lincoln’s sense of pragmatism than his righteous outrage against slavery. But what a character. He went from a politician who wasn’t above dropping a “nigger” here and there in his speech and writing, who saw slavery as a practical issue rather than a moral one, to a guy who detested slavery on moral grounds and advocated equal rights for blacks but still admitted he saw them as less worthy than whites, to someone moved by the valor of black troops fighting for their freedom to finally accept them as equals. It’s not that Lincoln was a great paragon of virtue from the moment he set foot on Earth. It’s that he was a normal man, a product of his time who struggled with the most profound moral dilemma his country ever faced, and wound up — more or less — on the right side. And, lest we forget — fuck, what a writer.
That’s just history, but what about right now? There’s a great deal to be proud of here that has nothing to do with red, white and blue streamers, or flags, or fireworks, or political parties. There’s so much about my country I can love without shitting on everyplace else in the world. What’s the point of that? The insistence that America is the greatest nation ever founded on God’s Green Earth[TM] — again, it just seems desperate to me, like you’re trying to prove something to yourself.
We have such wonderful music, music that is uniquely American: jazz, the blues, ragtime, bluegrass, country music (meaning Willie and Waylon, not Darryl Worley and Brad Paisley), motherfucking rock ‘n roll! Think of the musical geniuses America has given to the world: Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Billie Holliday, Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Carl Perkins, Janis Joplin, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Sarah Vaughn, Scott Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Aimee Mann, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger — fuck, I’m feeling generous, I’ll even throw Elvis in there.
What of the great films America has given the world? The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Sherlock Jr., The Graduate, Sunset Boulevard, Bride of Frankenstein, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull . . . I could go on all day. The list of great American actors and directors could be twice as long: Buster Keaton, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Humphrey Bogart, Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum . . .
The writers! Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver, Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Joyce Carol Oates, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Charles Bukowski, Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Ray Bradbury, Sam Shepard, Gertrude Stein, David Mamet, Alice Walker, John Updike, Pearl S. Buck, Kurt Vonnegut, Mary Oliver, Dalton Trumbo, Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck . . .
Putting down the rest of the world isn’t necessary. We invented baseball, we landed on the goddamn Moon, and we’ve maintained a representative democracy under the same Constitution since 17-fucking-89. Set off some fireworks, unfurl that old flag and fly the holy hell out of it today. But even without the rah-rah anthems and red, white and blue decorations, this is a damn fine country. Not a perfect one by any stretch. There’s plenty of shit around here that still needs fixing. But we’re doing okay. Besides, this is my home. I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anyplace else.