“Wave that flag, wave it wide and high…” (Grateful Dead, “US Blues”)
As a kid, July Fourth meant fireworks, and lots of them.
We’d start salivating around mid-June, shaking like 10-year-old junkies until Pop finally drove us to the Red Devil stand in Fontana, where’d we stock up on the most gruesome display of flame, gunpowder and amateur rocketry possible.
Oh, the joys of ladyfingers going off under Aunt Ruth’s chair… of nearly burning down the garage when a bottle rocket zoomed sideways… of thrilling Roman candles singeing the shrubbery… of snakes, pinwheels, sparklers and fountains frothy with fire in the backyard battlefield…
It was freakin’ glorious, is what it was.
But I never made the connection to what, exactly, we were celebrating.
Later in life, I got into history, and I finally understood why (for example) my Mexican and European pals rolled their eyes at my stories of celebrating the Fourth by setting fields on fire with M80-loaded Silver Salutes, or blowing up toilets in the boy’s room with cherry bombs (as custom demanded).
Americans are a raucous bunch, that’s for sure. We take a lot for granted, we’re still fighting the Civil War, much of our politics is incoherent and illogical, and we can be pretty infuriatingly provincial.
Plus, we’re no longer world leaders in the stuff we used to be rockstars at, like education, social mobility, inventions, progress, medicine… and we’re in denial about much of it.
However, even acknowledging all of these glaring faults hasn’t made me as cynical as some of my hipster pals. As I’ve said many times, no political party would ever allow me to be a member, and you’ll never figure out how I vote or what my views are on the topics the news media obsesses about.
This causes some problems in social situations when colleagues just assume I agree with them on the major issues. And I usually don’t agree at all. I’m not a total cynic, but I find fault with almost every opinion I hear. I totally understand how a lot of folks do become snarling partisans, enraged at their polar opposites on all issues, bereft of hope for the future.
I just learned to loathe cynicism itself long ago. Worthless attitude, doesn’t help anything, doesn’t provide solutions, doesn’t make an iota of difference in what goes on. At best, the cynic may toss off an actual witticism…
… but mostly, they’re just too cool to be bothered beyond expressing droll boredom and a vague superiority at being “above the fray”.
Well, fuck ‘em. The social/political/world-affairs cynic is a close cousin of the dude who’s never met a payroll, yet feels completely qualified to deliver speeches on how everyone else’s business should be run.
And I learned to shut that guy out very early in my career. My first question, whenever someone was bashing an entrepreneur’s efforts, used to be “well, what would you do in his situation?”
Which, of course, produced exasperation that someone of such intelligence and knowledge as themselves should be required to come up with solutions.
The nerve, asking him to dirty himself with real-world considerations.
Nowadays, I prefer to just let the conversation die from non-involvement. No matter what the cynic is talking about, it’s the same game every time – either “they” (the mysterious folks apparently running everything) need to fix things, or the world just needs to stop bothering Mr. Cynic with its problems if no one’s gonna take his advice.
Yeah, you’re the guy I’m going to when problems need fixing. Those platitudes, snooty attitudes and arrogant dismissals of detail work oughta solve everything fast.
Oops, I let some sarcasm slip there. Sorry.
Anyway, I bring up my detestation of cynicism because it often rears its ugly head right about the Fourth of July, when guys like me start ruminating on what’s good about this country.
Yes, I know The Man is getting better at keeping us down. I know we’re being groomed for digital slavery by evil geniuses who want to control the universe. And I know it’s hopeless to fight city hall (let alone the gazillionaires currently corrupting every corner of the government with buckets of moolah).
But I’m an amateur historian. And I can scoff at the cynics because even a casual glance at the ride we’ve taken as a country so far lays bare a single fact: We’ve always been at each other’s throats… the machinery of government has always clogged up at some point with cronyism and stupidity and corruption… and there is no single “truth” about living in the modern world.
Folks, we’re making it up as we go. If you’ve been living your life believing there’s some grand plan guiding things beyond the next election cycle, well, good for you. I hope that belief gives you comfort, but you’re delusional.
What’s kept the country going, so far, has been the incredible creativity of a minority of people who either get sucked into positions of authority, or who throw themselves into the fight (and suffer the consequences) because they simply cannot ignore the craziness anymore.
Our Constitution, cobbled together by men who did their best to force-feed the breakthroughs of The Enlightenment into government, is part road-map, part mysterious Oracle (written in language so open to interpretation that we haven’t agreed on it in two centuries years of trying), part sobering reminder of how imperfect our origins are.
Hey, it was one of the first governing documents of its kind, so cut it a little slack. Your bitchin’ new iMac is a direct descendant of that first homemade Apple computer (with no monitor and very limited utility) in Wozniack’s garage, you know. Your nice dependable car with the sealed engine bloomed from the unreliable Model A. The first of anything is almost always a fragile, error-riddled Beta version that gets a few steps forward and then collapses.
Which is why we didn’t get our modern version of the Constitution until after we tossed the mortally-flawed Articles of Confederation, and added a whole bunch of Amendments to address other serious problems that kept popping up.
I don’t have any easy answers to the problems plaguing us, and you don’t either. The battles we fight have always been with us, and forever will remain with us. Right vs. left, ignorant vs. arrogant, moralist vs. libertine, religious vs. secularist… you’re not gonna solve the disconnects and partisanship with laws.
What resiliency we’ve enjoyed has been because of the elasticity of the governing document. It has bent near-to-breaking many times, but keeps snapping back.
Which brings me to one thing I insist on celebrating in our Constitution over all other elements – the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Like much of the writing in our governing document, it’s vague and easily interpreted in silly ways.
However, that key detail about freedom of speech is the grease in the engine of democracy. Most of our ancestors, thoughout history, had no such luxury. A few short generations ago, I easily could have been shot just for writing what I do on this blog. Most ruling classes, once they get into power, seek to shut down dissent (and anyone else they don’t like for general purposes). It’s hard to rule large growling groups of humans, and you can get very irritable when critics are always sniping at your heels.
So, despite all the cynical things you can say about this joint, I keep coming back to that fragile, constantly-in-need-of-nurturing First Amendment…
… which, if any of my ancestors throughout history could have seen, would have taken their breath away.
We take it for granted that we can speak our minds here… and my network of writerly pals feel mostly immune from the anxieties our colleagues in other times have suffered (and still suffer in many parts of the world).
It’s hard to imagine how I’d get through my day if I had to bite my tongue, and keep all this blather in my brain a fearful secret, 1984-style.
Americans are a contentious bunch. We may yet screw things up and lose it all… but it’s not a foolish bet, either, to believe we can also re-establish our foothold in this brave new world and keep the noble experiment going…
… as long as writers and other ass-kickers are free to persuade, cajole, cast shame and float new ideas without being tossed in the hoosegow.
And so, today, I tip my hat to the flag and Ms Liberty, and shed a modest tear for the freedom I’ve been given to be my anti-authoritarian, irreverent, rebellious bad self.
Here’s to ya, old girl. My love is genuine and forever, no matter how much she pisses me off at times.
And to the cynics: Either put up, or shut up. There’s work to be done, and your troll-like carping from the sidelines has long been like the annoying yapping of lap dogs. Lay out your plan for what to do differently. Don’t just gripe.
Okay, I feel better now. Thanks.
Hope you have a great holiday weekend. Don’t get sunburned, don’t get too wasted, and don’t burn down the garage. And for cryin’ out loud, don’t get sucked into another futile political argument with that asshole brother-in-law of yours…
P.S. Love to hear your comments on how you deal with cynics, and how you view this opportunity to live in a world where you can spout off to The Man without (for now, at least) risking your neck.
We live in interesting times, my friend.