There will be 16,000 fireworks displays around America on the Fourth of July. That’s not as many as the number of scheduled parades, nor of hot dogs, hamburgers or jalapeños that will be eaten. And it’s probably nowhere near the number of family feuds will that will erupt over politics.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of family gatherings this year start with a plea to stay away from politics,” says Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin. “American has always had political divisions, but right now, it’s bitter at the heart…
“It’s not simply a difference of opinion about whether a policy is good or bad. We’re arguing about questions of fundamental identity.”
Just eight months ago, Americans struggled through a hold-your-breath-Thanksgiving only weeks after a brutally combative presidential election. But as the Fourth of July approaches, a new dilemma looms: How do you celebrate a holiday of unity and nationhood at a time when those very things seem, in many ways, under existential threat?
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Terms like “un-American” and “treason,” missing from public discourse since the most ragingly rancorous days of the 1960s, fly around social media like ricocheting bullets, a metaphor that turned distressingly literal when a Bernie Sanders supporter shot up the Republican congressional baseball team last month.
President Trump’s enemies debate whether he’s a Manchurian candidate or merely Moscow’s unwitting stooge, a mirror image of Trump’s own contention not so long ago that President Obama was a secret Kenyan with a fake U.S. birth certificate.
What you have right now, on both sides, is a substantial number of Americans who believe another substantial number of Americans are not really Americans. It’s a cleavage over who has the standing to be an American. That’s pretty deep.
Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin
The U.S. Constitution is often dismissed as the product of a white-guy conspiracy against the rest of the world. College students attack speakers they don’t like; conservatives disrupt an anti-Trump play in Central Park. It’s enough to make the college kids who hide out from from ideas they don’t like in campus “safe spaces” equipped with coloring books and cute-puppy videos sound sensible.
“What you have right now, on both sides, is a substantial number of Americans who believe another substantial number of Americans are not really Americans,” says Gitlin. “That’s very serious. It’s a cleavage over who has the standing to be an American. That’s pretty deep.”
The Fourth of July has always been a mildly fraudulent holiday. It was on July 2, 1776, that the Continental Congress in Philadelphia proclaimed America’s independence from Great Britain; the only thing that happened on the Fourth was that somebody remembered to send the thing over to the printer. (As long as we’re on the subject of fake news of the 18th century, that vellum scroll you can see in the National Archives in Washington D.C. is not the original — it was hand-copied later.)
And there were no firecrackers when it was signed; the colonists were saving their gunpowder for more important stuff, like shooting at the British. Independence Day didn’t really become a national celebration until after the War of 1812, when the very loosely allied states banded together to beat back the British a second time.
Despite all those inauthenticities, the Fourth of July somehow attached itself to the American consciousness. Three U.S. presidents— John Adams, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence — died on the Fourth (Adams and Jefferson within hours of each other). Another, Calvin Coolidge, was born. The two battles that decided the Civil War and ended the greatest rupture in U. S. history, Gettysburg and the siege of Vicksburg, ended on Fourth of July weekend in 1863. (The citizens of the Mississippi city of Vicksburg were so embittered by the defeat that they didn’t resume celebrating the Fourth until World War II.)
“The Fourth of July is one of those dates that have a mystical significance,” says Virginia Tech historian Paul Quigley, who has studied the holiday.
Its mystique does not stop at American shores. You probably don’t know the date of Bastille Day, when France celebrates its liberation from monarchy. But on the Fourth of July in 1918, a few months before the end of World War I, tens of thousands of Frenchmen poured into the streets of Paris to salute their American allies.
The Fourth of July is one of those dates that have a mystical significance.
Virginia Tech historian Paul Quigley
Even in their earliest days, Fourth celebrations were no strangers to frivolity. Among the first customs associated with the holiday was a series of 13 toasts, one for each of the original states. Judging from the annual traffic statistics — about 120 people will die this Fourth, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, about 43 percent of them in accidents involving at least one drunk driver — we still embrace that one.
And while the equation between swilling food like a hog and love of liberty continues to elude logic and common sense, it is nonetheless strong. Hundreds of eating contests involving watermelons, pies, cinnamon rolls, tater tots, ice cream, banana splits, pizza, cupcakes, chicken wings, burritos and pickled eggs will be held all over America on the Fourth. (Texas, not as manly as it once was, even has a vegan hot-dog-eating competition.)
The most famous of these, of course, is the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest on Coney Island, nationally televised on ESPN, complete with odds posted by Las Vegas bookies and video-replay judges who can check to see if a contestant merely belched or actually threw up — a “Roman-method foul,” in the lexicon of major league eaters. Except — fake news again! — that’s just a made-up story by Nathan’s publicists trying to score some advertising without paying for it.
The first contest really occurred in 1972 and was seriously lacking in the glamor and sophistication we associate with competitive eating. A Nathan’s executive admitted to the Boston Globe last year that all the company bosses did was “wait for a couple of fat guys to walk by and ask them if they wanted to be in a hot dog contest.”
For all the whimsy, though, some Fourths have been grim affairs. During the Civil War, a New York Times reporter wrote that Fourth celebrations in the Confederate South were “like the anniversary of a divorced couple’s wedding,” acknowledging the importance of the day but resisting its sentiments -- particularly that language in the Declaration of Independence about the equality of man (“the barefaced and transparent fallacies with which the production of Mr. Jefferson opens,” as the Charleston Courier put it), which didn’t seem exactly compatible with slavery. On the other hand, July 4, 1865, a few months after the Confederacy’s defeat, was the first time many American blacks ever celebrated Independence Day.
And on July 4, 1942, as the initial burst of patriotic fervor over the outbreak of World War II eight months earlier was fading into anxiety of what was beginning to look like a long and uncertain conflict, President Franklin Roosevelt canceled the Fourth holiday for government workers. Much of the private sector followed his lead.
The 120,000 Japanese Americans Roosevelt had detained in relocation camps probably would have been only too happy to be at work. Instead they found themselves in a strange twilight zone, mistrusted by their own government and feared by many of their fellow citizens, locked up until ... well, who knew when?
Many of them, though, refused to give up on a nation that gave every indication of giving up on them. “Yes, cuss it out; say it’s a hell of a country,” wrote Richard Itanaga, editor of the newspaper in a detention camp near Jerome, Arkansas. “But a democracy can correct its own mistakes. They’re not be righted as rapidly as we would like to have it, but the machine is pointed in the right direction...
“We remember some of the carefree, joyous Fourths of our childhood and feel sorry for these evacuee tots. We hope July 4, 1944-5-6 and others to follow will not find them in the same plight.”
Many of the hyphenated-Americans of 2017, feeling like they’re the rope in the national tugs-of-war over immigration and terrorism, can understand the perspective of World War II’s Japanese detainees. Shabbir Motorwola, an India-born Muslim who has been a U.S. citizen for 36 years now, has shared many a Fourth of July hot dog with his Miami friends, but now he’s uneasy.
“This year it may be difficult, as I feel that our freedom is taken away by current political climate,” he said. “Muslims came to this country to enjoy freedom from tyranny but we now feel that tyranny is following us Muslims, right here under the eyes of the Statue of Liberty.”
Yet he’s quick to add: “America is my country and the country of my children. I love this country.”
That’s a sentiment, historian Ron Radosh broods, that may be disappearing, not just among immigrants but much of the U.S. population, where ethnic and gender identity have replaced the national one.
“We seem to be losing the fundamental idea of being an American,” he says. “In the old days, in the early days of the 20th century, we had these settlement houses for immigrants. A settlement house took them in, helped them get jobs, taught them English and educated them into Americans.
“And they were Americans before they were anything else, no matter what their politics or ethnicities. My parents came from Russia, and they were Jews, but I never heard them call themselves anything but Americans. They loved America. I remember my father telling me when I was little, ‘This is a great country, you could grow up to be president.’ And he was a leftist.”
Not everybody is so pessimistic. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the discord of the past few years is not a rip in the national fabric, just the ugly and soon-to-be-over death throes of the Baby Boomer generation as it collectively shuffles off center stage and, soon, the entire mortal coil.
“College kids are college kids,” the 65-year-old Sabato insists. “I said plenty of stupid things when I was a college kid, so I’m reluctant to condemn them for a lifetime. The real problem is Baby Boomer instransigency. The world has always revolved around us. We were this giant generation that dictated everything to everybody.
“We said to our parents, ‘You had your chance, now we’re gonna remake the world.’ And of course we found it wasn’t so easy. Now somebody’s saying the same thing to us, and we’re not liking it... That was 90 percent of the noise in the last election.”
Then again, the millennial generation has some weapons of mass cultural and political destruction that weren’t available to Baby Boomers in their wild and wooly youth: social media. YouTube and Facebook and Twitter can quickly send a mild argument hurtling toward the apocalypse.
“If email was invented 20 years before it actually was, there’d be another world war by now,” says Neil Jones, a Welsh immigrant who’s running the independent state Senate campaign of Miami college professor Christian Schlaerth.
“When did you last speak to the person you exchanged Facebook comments with? When did you last see him? So, the world of technology has made us closer in many ways but it’s also made us farther apart. That’s quite sad.”
▪ Leave your guns at home on July Fourth, implore elected leaders and local police on Monday, 3A
▪ Fireworks accident leaves Fort Lauderdale man with partial amputation, 3A
▪ Fireworks salespeople have big dreams for holiday funds, 3A
▪ In U.S. love affair with the national anthem, look to the 1918 World Series as the key, 9A
▪ For those with PTSD, the holiday can bring additional stress, 6C