I spent the fourth of July holiday reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I’d dabbled in Chomsky, so I had a vague idea what I was getting into, but I did not expect the book to be so profoundly depressing.
It was terrible timing. The thrust of the book is this: The U.S. is controlled by a wealthy elite and has always placed corporate interests above the welfare of its people. An obsession with wealth and power causes us to be a giant fucking asshole when it comes to foreign policy. Ever imperialistic, we’ve waged wars and committed heinous acts of—yes—terrorism in the name of “preserving democracy.”
After that read, there was no way I felt like waving sparklers or eating red, white, and blue Jello strata. I did drag us to the community fireworks, so my four-year-old could have a traditional fourth of July experience, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d read. I’ve never liked July fourth much anyway. I’ve had some good ones—fireworks and preteen shenanigans at the town carnival where my dad’s cover band was playing, ice cream and fireworks by the state capitol with my best college friend. I’ve also had some bad ones—one was a breakup, another was bringing my mother home from the hospital after her breast cancer surgery. Since becoming more politically aware in my early thirties, I just haven’t felt that patriotic in general. So many aspects of the American character—materialism, evangelism, anti-intellectualism–are at odds with my personal values.
This year, I think, was the breaking point. Independence Day will never be the same. I shudder to think of what future celebrations will be like for my son. Can I even pretend?
Party guest: “That’s a lovely dessert. It looks like…sponge cake with…metal objects protruding from it?”
Me: “Thanks. It represents the military-industrial complex. The strawberry sauce is the blood of poor people, which is how we pay for our oil.”
Husband: “Sorry, honey, I burned the hot dogs.”
Me: “You know what else got burned? Hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre. If you want to celebrate being American, just let these charred hot dog corpses lie here and rot. If anybody asks if we burnt them, lie about it.”
Firework watchers: “Oooh! Aaah!”
Me: “Yeah, you keep your eyes on those pretty colors and away from Central America, just like the Reagan administration wanted you to, dickwits.”
Then I’ll shriek over the socializing neighbors in desperation, à la Charlie Brown at Christmas: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Independence Day is all about?!”
When no one answers, I’ll assume the part of Linus: “No one? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s the first time in our nation’s history that the powers-that-be initiated a war to distract the populace from egregious economic, political, and social inequity at home. All true revolutionary movements since have failed, and now we get to celebrate our powerlessness in what is at best a ‘managed democracy’ and at worst a fundamentally totalitarian state! Drink up, sheeple!”
What I really can’t wait for is Labor Day, because I’ve got a lineup of skits about the violent suppression of the labor movement for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. So if you don’t want to see grossly underpaid workers getting burned alive at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, or Eugene V. Debs and Samuel Gompers* mud wrestling, don’t accept an invitation to my cookout.
*I’m not super well-versed in history, but from what I can tell, Debs and Gompers are sort of like the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony of the labor movement, with Debs and Stanton being all like hard-core and radical, and Gompers and Anthony being like, “OK, let’s temper this a little and try to compromise.” And then Debs and Stanton being all bad-ass like, “Fuck no! I’ll go to jail for this shit!” At least, if I ever teach history, that’s how I’m going to teach it.