Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Complicated Independence Day

I slept through much of the day – and evening – of July 4th. I had no plans and it had been an exhausting week of shocking events (the Hobby Lobby decision, the hateful demonstration against three busloads of frightened, stranded, children)  that made me question (hardly for the first time!) what it is that we continue to celebrate every Fourth of July. During the few hours I was awake, I asked myself if I loved my country, if I even liked my country, and I couldn’t respond with a clear yes or no. That freaked me out.

My mother’s parents were both Jews who, when they were still very young, emigrated from Eastern Europe in the years before World War I (that’s 1 not 2). They didn’t come together, they met here. They became citizens and my grandfather served in the First World War. My father, and his father before him, came here from the West Indies. They too became citizens. I don’t know what my grandfather did except work for the Chunky Candy factory in Brooklyn for all of his working life in the U.S. For the record, they all came here legally.

My father worked as a Merchant Marine from the time he was a teenager and during  part of that career he served for the U.S. in WWII and barely escaped from fires on two oil tankers. Later, he was a waiter and wine steward on several trans-Atlantic ocean liners, including the S.S. America and S.S. United States. During his many years at sea he saw a great deal of the world.

When my mother insisted he get a job on land and not be away from home for great lengths of time, he became a skycap for TWA. He schlepped luggage for 25 years, but the job gave my parents cheap-sometimes-free flying for a lot of international vacation travel. So when my father told me, several times from my teens into adulthood, that despite all its problems America was the greatest country in the world, I had to at least in part believe that, because I couldn’t deny his intelligence or experience. 

Studying history was one of my father's hobbies; he knew 150 million Native Americans had been killed in the process of creating America and he didn't negate that any more than Slavery. But he also knew that history was riddled with powerful nations taking over less powerful ones and killing or enslaving the indigenous people or anyone who objected. He grew up in the British West Indies. He understood the violent, dishonorable food chain of nation-building. Yet he still loved America as it was and all it had the capacity to become. 

But my parents didn’t live to see the 21st century. They didn’t live through the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and watch that experience make the country frightened, angry, and hostile ever since. They didn't see new communications and manufacturing technology change everything. They didn't see our environmental destruction and indifference start to come home to roost. They didn’t see the Republicans, a fraternity of stodgy businessmen, turn into a hateful Party committed to reversing civil, voting, and women’s rights.

They didn’t endure the Great Recession of 2008 that nearly tanked this country and has left us still sorely damaged. They didn’t see the national Legislature become deliberately obstructionist in response to the first Black US president, adding constant racist insult to political injury from Day One. They didn’t live through this country’s two longest, incredibly expensive, and ultimately pointless wars.

And my family of immigrants didn’t watch this nation of immigrants despise immigrants because they had sneaked in rather than wait their legal turn, the nation’s hatred even extending to those who came here as little kids or who now are escaping to here on their own as young children, because life in their countries has become too horrible and dangerous to endure.

My parents didn’t live to see us re-evaluate America’s Founding Fathers who, while undeniably brave, bold, revolutionaries, were also largely rich, slave-owning land-holders. They didn’t watch contemporary government screw over military veterans; see many politicians and a great many citizens become rabid fundamentalists and deniers of science in the name of religion; or witness Congress purposely declare War on the Poor instead of War on Poverty, not to mention being governmental leaders who don’t believe in government.

My mother, who had several serious ailments and skimped on her meds because they were so expensive, didn’t live to see something resembling universal coverage be denigrated and sabotaged by politicians who feared it more than disease.

To be honest, part of what saddened me yesterday was that I didn’t have a cookout to attend or anyone with whom I could go watch the fireworks (I love fireworks), even though I dislike and disapprove of the way we’ve turned every national holiday of social and historical importance into an occasion to party and shop.

But mostly, I was and still am preoccupied with how America has stepped back. I’m angry with the Supreme Court and Congress; I’m concerned that it took our smart, idealistic President six years to realize those shitheads in Washington are never going to work with him; and I’m very worried that this year’s elections will bring even more irresponsible nutjobs into national power and give “lame duck” terrible new meaning for the next two years. Papa, I wish you were here.

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