Question Everything, A 4th of July Meditation

As it’s the 4th of July, I just posted an American flag by Andy Warhol on Facebook along with Whitney Houston’s video singing the Star Spangled Banner. I surfed through my friends’ remarks for the day, lots of flags and remembrances of those who fought for our freedom and support for our courageous troops who are still serving, as well as those who’ve paid the ultimate price.

It’s heart-moving and provocative emotionally to see the out-pouring of patriotism. But ever since I was a kid and learned about the divisions of borders, other countries, some hostile, some brutal to their people and what has been done in the name of patriotism (not to mention religion), I’ve had serious doubts about the separations these kind of loyalties create. And last night I was with a playful and talented group of people at a karaoke party where people sang plenty of good ‘ole American songs, and wore red, white and blue blouses and hats. Holidays are always great reasons to get together with others and celebrate. One guy sang Toby Keith’s notorious hit “Courtesy for the Red, White and Blue” almost as good as Toby himself.

I listen to country, corny as the lyrics can be, I like the stories, I like the beat. But I can get pretty uncomfortable with the raging nationalism. I remember the first time I heard the song, also called “The Angry American.” I was living in Boston and it was in the wake of 9/11, a time of heightened patriotism when America had the sympathy of most of the world. There were some lines in the song that offended some of us peacenicks, such as, “The Statue of Liberty is shaking her fist . . . Man, it’s gonna be hell when you hear Mother Freedom start ringin’ her bell and it feels like whole wide world is raining down on you . . . ” then, “we”ll put a boot in your ass, It’s the American way . . . “

In my opinion, it is outrageous, but on another level, I could see his viewpoint and chuckle at the machoism. I grew up in NY, I’ve got that dark humor, and it’s not outrageous in terms of the particular individual that Toby is. Many of his songs reflect attitudes that I don’t embrace but I find him a terrific singer and songwriter and could certainly see where he was coming from. 9/11 was horrific and his millions of fans here and overseas love the song. I’m a die-hard liberal but I admire the clever lyrics and the passionate music.

It’s a revenge song for sure and it talks about “lighting up” the enemy’s “sky like the 4th of July,” which we can directly associate not only to the war in Afghanistan, but especially the “Shock and Awe” which came later as the U.S. military began bombing Iraq. On faulty information as it turned out. And a lot of innocent people were killed. That’s not a chuckling matter.I don’t support the euphemism of “collateral damage.”

When I heard the song last night on the eve of the July 4th, I thought of another artist, Alice Walker, feminist Afro-American poet, novelist and activist. Years ago, teaching one of her essays to college freshmen, I came across her poem, “On Sight” which is embedded in the essay. In it she references the moon-landing of 1969, when astronauts planted the American flag on the moon. Here are some of her lines, the latter part of the poem:

The desert has its own moon
Which I have seen
With my own eye.

There is no flag on it.

Trees of the desert have arms
All of which are always up
That is because the moon is up
The sun is up
Also the sky
The Stars
None with flags.

Point being, can you really own the moon? Do we even own the land? Native Americans thought they belonged to the land, not the other way round. Patriotism is nice to celebrate, a country’s birthday is a good excuse for a holiday, and we like holidays, watermelon, hot dogs and apple pie . . but . . . this late in history, at a time when technology has brought the entire world into communication and more and more young people around the world are creating the same culture, at a time when the entire planet’s environment is threatened by consumerism, overpopulation and continuing wars, too much patriotism may be an outdated, and dangerous habit.

Basic world values are also becoming more similar, countries are still struggling for democracy, even as our citizens raise questions about what true democracy is. Does the congress really represent our country and its changing population? Does it consider what is in the best interests of its constituents, or has it sold out to corporations and lobbyists? Is our media even reflective of true democracy? Or is it designed to keep us in a trance? It appears up front and personal until you really examine the profit over loss principle of capitalism behind it. Who are those guys on Wall Street that caused the melt-down anyway? And what kind of democracy lets them off scott-free?

Maybe we should have World Day, celebrate the Big Bang, the whole creation of oceans and continents unto every corner of the earth. Celebrate people everywhere who are willing to envision real global change. People who are protesting what they don’t like about the world. I like our flag, but back in the sixties I agreed with those who burned it in protest to the country’s activities in Viet Nam. It’s just a symbol after all. And a symbol is only as good as what it represents. Some people forget we have a right to protest our government. A symbol is also an easy way to rally sentimentality (which is feeling without substance behind it). Dividing people according to religion or borders is always a good way to control private interests and sometimes that’s what nationalism does.

Even as a kid I was always freaked out by the Star Spangled Banner’s bombs bursting line. And those bombs are kind of like fireworks. I prefer John Lennon’s lines in Imagine, “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too.”

And I know I’m not the only dreamer. . . Socrates called himself a citizen of the world, not just Athens. Then again, they gave him the choice of hemlock or exile. He took the hemlock because, as he said his “daimon” or intuition did not object when he thought that being exiled would defeat the purpose of his life which was to teach the youth of Athens to question everything.

WordPress Themes