Born on the Fifth of July

It’s supposed to be easy to feel patriotic on Independence Day, and indeed when I was a kid it was right up there with Christmas for me. Maybe it was the fireworks and ice cream, maybe the easy assurance that the promise of America was something we really aspired to as citizens.

This year, not so much. I really did not want to see the fireworks, didn’t really want to sing about bombs bursting in air. I get enough of that on CNN these days. Triumphal hymns are easier to take when our troops aren’t stuck in a pointless war in a rapidly disintegrating post-colonial husk of a country that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East in a sectarian bloodbath.

Gone– along with 2,500 brave Americans, our moral suasion and our budget surplus–are the stirring melodies and inspiring chords of our martial music of yesterday, replaced death metal anthems that the military uses, alternately, to gear up the grunts for tank battles and to grind down Iraqi prisoners before the real torture begins. If a nation is defined by the songs its troops sing on the battlefield, we are in deep trouble. Yesterday, the Battle Hymn of the Republic… today, Hadji Girl. The wingers can talk about the schools we’re opening all they want–but it doesn’t change the fact that my tax dollars went to pay for Haditha and Mahmoudiya. If I think about it enough I get sick at my stomach.

All of this has been weighing heavily on me for weeks. I suppose while David was out of town I was reading the news more and reflecting on it more deeply. Whatever the case, I was already wrestling with the question of what it means to be, in 2006, proud to be an American, when it came time to sing America the Beautiful at the end of the church service I attended Sunday at Saint Mark’s.

I almost lost it, right there in church. I love this hymn and it was speaking to me. It was telling me exactly what was wrong. To make matters worse, as I sang it (or tried to) two of the people I loved the most were on the road, sampling the deepest beauties of America– my sister Julie, driving to her new home in LA, and David, climbing a few of those “purple mountain majesties” on a hiking trip in Alaska. I had just prayed for traveling mercies for them, and now this song–the most beautiful and least bloodthirsty of our national songs– became a prayer that we as a nation could travel back to sanity. Where is the father who can turn this car around?

So to refresh your memory, read the lyrics one more time:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain,
for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.

O beautiful for heroes proved
in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved,
and mercy more than life!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for patriot dream
that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam,
undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.

I will confess, I never liked that third verse… Katherine Lee Bates could hardly have missed the filthy tenements of the 19th century, so that lyric reads like denial, or perhaps a bit of hairsplitting between “undimmed” and “unstained.”

But that second verse– my God, it’s like she had a premonition of the headlines of 2006 and wanted to reassure us that we have it in us to fix what is wrong. What does it mean to sing of national heroes who love “mercy more than life?” It’s a far cry from the pundits who excuse those few soldiers who commit abuses by reminding us that war is hell. And “confirm thy soul in self-control/ and liberty in law” should be a rallying cry for what we on the left–as true patriots–expect from ourselves and our leaders. We have to wake up from the bad dream where every new attack on the Constitution is explained away by some version of “in the post-9/11 world…”

Frankly, I would rather live bravely in a post-9/11 world and take my chances with terrorists than to see my liberties stripped away in a world beyond the reach of the joys of the Fourth of July. I want my patriotic hymns back! I want to live in an America where the fearmongers on the right are drowned out by a chorus of people who know that what Benjamin Franklin said all those years ago is still true today: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

Struck by that hymn, and the request “God mend thy every flaw,” I stumbled out of the cathedral into the bright light of a gorgeous summer day. I’m still there, blinking in the light, hoping I can live up to the patriotism the song inspires. I think it’s about being a Fifth of July patriot–one who’s not just there for the fireworks and triumphalism, but the kind who cares about this Republic surviving with our freedoms intact.

One thought on “Born on the Fifth of July”

  1. Jay, this is a lovely heartfelt post. I posted today on my own site about my ambivelence around this 4th, something I’ve never even given a second thought to. And frequently, I turn to Thomas Jefferson, who so eloquently expressed the ideals that the country was supposed to be modeled on.

    Patriotism has never been more of a burden than it is right now. I used to argue quite passionately that I was a patriot and proud to be one. But now? Who can say if it’s not time to give up and give in, heading overseas and hoping the storm passes?

    WWJD. What would Jefferson do?

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