“To the American slave, what is your 4th of July? A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
~ Frederick Douglass , July 5, 1852
It’s a sad fact that virtually every U.S. federal holiday celebrates colonialism, slave-owning presidents, regressive religions, or outright genocide – July 4th is no different. Only one of our holidays celebrates a American of morality and virtue who fought against such tyranny. We are an imperialist nation, constantly at war, where white supremacy and male dominance brutalizes domestically and globally. So what are we really celebrating for?
Many years ago in film school, some comrades and I shot a short documentary asking that very question. Many strangers we interviewed cited the army, the troops, vague ideas about what freedoms they believed they enjoyed – it seemed as though the militarization of the everyday had perverted July 4th into just another day to bolster nationalist pride. Nevermind that America’s declaration of independence was made without armed aggression. Great Britain didn’t even find out for another month.
Most people I know, they’ll party, they’ll watch fireworks, they’ll light off plenty of their own. They’ll maybe make some sort of ironic patriotic-themed costume mocking middle-‘Merica, NASCAR, Bibles and beer-mirrors, or something. Nobody really gets into the idea that the holiday means much other than getting a day off work to drink and BBQ. And that’s a good thing.
The very idea of nation states – of rooting for a country as best simply because you were born there – needs to die. As we face increasing globalization, we also face globalized threats that effect all our lives. Climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, desertification of farmland – all of these are man-made crises that national governments have proven unable or unwilling to combat.
What is needed is a radical rethinking of our relationships with the land. There is nothing different about the need for water in America than there is in Australia. People and wildlife in Algeria breathe the same atmosphere as those in Alberta. It seems, that along with globalization’s harms, there is the beginning a global consciousness of these facts of life.
This July 4th, I joined a cadre of cycling comrades with fine food and drink as we collectively rode up to Swan Island, the mecca of industrialization in Portland, Oregon. We had a bonfire, we grubbed, we rocked some tunes on homemade suitcase sound systems. We talked about the holiday, about the possible futures of our city and our planet. Despite the existential dread of knowing our warming planet is rapidly changing, there was still a celebratory sense that we were living just a bit more harmoniously with the planet.
Most everyone there were regular bike commuters, choosing pedal-power over fossil fuels. We spend what money we earn locally, supporting small family businesses whenever possible, (not counting fireworks). In all honesty, after the absurd SCOTUS ruling last week, I had no idea what a Hobby Lobby even was.
If there is to be a celebration on the fourth of July, let it be for an independence from oil and automobile addiction. Let it be for healing the Earth. Let’s come together via bicycles, joyously – watching sunsets, watching explosions in the night sky, embracing the knowledge that regardless of where we were born, each of us calls Earth our home. If our home is worth saving, then we must change how we live, and we must celebrate that change.
Ride your bike like you give a damn. Happy 4th of July!