“Happy Fourth of July,” we tell one another. We may not always mean it.
This year’s celebration of national independence is not shaping up as an especially joyous one. Things are so unsettled.
Let me count some of the ways.
First. We Americans seem to be at one another’s throats, still, and fear seems to be epidemic.
One indication of unease is the proliferation of domestic firearms. Thirty-nine percent of Americans now own a household weapon, up from 32% in 2016. Almost a fifth of the people who purchased guns last year were first-time owners. Why do we continue to arm ourselves?
Now, Dodge City and other notorious western towns required pistol-packing cow hands to check their six shooters at the sheriff’s office before heading off to the saloon.
In today’s America things are a little different. The other day I spied a fellow packing a sidearm at my favorite restaurant in Perryopolis. I suppose he was ready to defend his right to a full plate of mac ‘n cheese.
Second. Too many Americans are still in a blue funk over the last presidential election.
These confused souls refuse to believe Donald Trump lost, fair and square, and that Joe Biden is the legitimate president.
This cohort of democracy deniers includes Republican lawmakers in states such as Arizona and, yes, Pennsylvania as well as the knucklehead who draped a vulgarity-laced anti-Biden banner outside his residence in the middle of Scottdale, and others who have dotted their lawns with the not quite so vulgar “Biden Sucks” signs.
Third. Our common history doesn’t seem so common anymore.
Is Columbus a hero or a villain? Is the lynchpin of American history the hideous introduction of slavery in 1619 or the propitious July 1776 Declaration? What about Washington and Jefferson? (Not the college, but the men.) Are they the admired leaders of the revolt against the British on behalf of American independence or hypocrite slave owners?
What about Andrew Jackson? Was he more slave owner than tribune of the common man in the 19th century? How about Franklin Roosevelt? Champion of freedom or the president who locked up Japanese-Americans during World War II and permitted Blacks to be lynched in the 1930s to placate Southern Democrats and to protect his precious, whites-only New Deal?
Fourth. Socially and racially we are in disarray, to say the least.
Are we woke, too woke, or woke not enough? Is #MeToo a necessary corrective or a wild overreach? Does critical race theory foster tolerance or exacerbate divisions? Are white men white supremacist by default or by choice? Is the goal equality or equity?
Equality seems old-fashioned and out-of-date. Equity is cutting edge and modern. Which should it be?
For that matter, what are Americans in the year 2021 to make of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s proclamation that “all men are created equal.”
Joke or bold truth? Guiding star? Falling star? A statement for the ages, or an aging statement?
Maybe the British and King George were right. Americans had no business revolting against the benevolent, democratic (kind of) Mother Country. As for the Civil War, wouldn’t it had been better to let Confederate states secede peacefully? Texas and South Carolina deserve one another, right?
This sinking feeling is not new. We’ve been here before on July 4. In 1861 President Lincoln told Congress that “our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good, old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words “all men are created equal.”
The nation was in extreme peril, Lincoln stated.
In 1976, in the wake of Watergate, the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that Americans are “daily knocked over by incoming waves of venality, vulgarity, irresponsibility, ignorance and trash.”
Tuchman insisted the American “planned idea ... of democracy, of liberty, of conscience and pursuit of happiness” was at grave risk.
Yet both Lincoln and Tuchman remained hopeful that the American experiment in democracy would somehow pull through. As Tuchman wrote, the idea of America, though battered, “does not die.”
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at email@example.com.