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Opinion

What I’m Celebrating Instead of America’s Birthday This Fourth of July

by Mark Hay

July 3, 2015

On the Fourth of July, most Americans (and Danes for some reason) will break out Old Glory, stock up on hot dogs and other mystery meat products, and head out to fireworks-watching picnics (or in my Brooklyn neighborhood, rooftop parties) to celebrate. But while the bulk of the country is out listening to patriotic music and reveling in wholesome nationalism, I’ll be sitting about 2,000 miles away, at a decidedly un-American bar in Reykjavik, Iceland, with nary a USA!USA!USA!-chanting expatriate within earshot. And that’s exactly the way I like it, because I am incredibly dubious of this nationalistic holiday. 

Now don’t get me wrong. In the abstract, I have no problem with commemorating the 1776 ratification of America’s Declaration of Independence and the ideals enshrined within it. The language of the people’s right to sovereignty, indignant rebellion, and equality contained within the document is, taken at face value, something worth reaffirming. And as an inveterate, undiscriminating omnivore, I’m more than happy to reaffirm those ideals with good old American beef lips-and-pink-slime-based hot dogs if need be.

But in my experience, the Fourth of July is not just a day for remembering a set of cosmic ideals that transcend one nation. Instead, it has become a day to reify the narrative of America’s infallible, exceptional founding. And by elevating America’s birthday to some cosmic event of heavenly justice, the Fourth turns into a holiday of jingoistic, nationalistic absolution. In serving this absolution, we spin yarns that deny the many shortcomings of the American Revolution, the documents at the core of our nation, and the prolonged social ills that stem from that history. It’s the one day of the year when we are all encouraged to proclaim “America, fuck yeah!” unironically and with conviction, asserting our role as some divinely inspired and flawless force in the world.

American "hot dog" sandwich. Image by TheCulinaryGeek via Flickr

To me, that is an uncomfortable form of self-aggrandizement, even for one day a year. Especially when one considers the plethora of anti-democratic forces at play in the founding of our country. When we look closely at American history, we start to recognize that before, during, and after the Revolution, the country was consumed with domestic unrest over inequality, a fact which had a cooling effect on popular support for the elite architects of our war for independence. We start to remember that hidden within our founding documents are ironic recognitions of the inequality of man, the enshrinement of slavery, and a fundamental disrespect for so-called “savage” Native American cultures. We begin to comprehend how narrow and self-serving some of the freedoms we now tout as universal really were at that time.

Much of this is in a sense understandable, if not excusable, within the context of the document’s 18th-century authorship. And as a living text, what’s written into and between the lines of the Declaration of Independence is not a prophecy for the future of our nation. But even on the Fourth of July, it’s still necessary to recognize these historical shortcomings. This is how we discover what, in the old bones of the nation, we wish to reform and what we wish to retain in order to best achieve our breathing, growing, organic national ideals. It’s especially necessary to remember our national shortcomings when, by doing so, we might see how the same issues of inequality and dissidence that dogged the founding fathers have carried on into the modern era. By examining this prolonged history of ideals unmet and admitting the ironies of our national legend, we might be able to move forward into a future more in line with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence that we wish to believe in and make real.

But in our ra-ra celebrations and cheery, apple pie stories of America’s picture-perfect and godly founding, we mask that uncomfortable history. We lose our ability to historically muse upon not just our national ideals, but also our national curses and how to address them. We lose our ability to empathize with the messy process other nations go through in founding their own nations, seeing anything short of our own immaculate miracle as a messy clusterfuck indicative of the greater world’s ineptitude and chaos.

Tea Party from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland"

It’s not that I think we shouldn’t celebrate. Even with my discomfort with the spirit and tone of the holiday, I still like fireworks, and a good excuse to take a day off. But rather than celebrate the Fourth, and all it’s come to embody, I’ve decided to commemorate another holiday on July 4 from here on out, a holiday which I feel is somehow more in line with the ethos I’d like to see honored on the anniversary of our nation’s founding. This year, I’m going to celebrate “Goldberg Wonderland Day”—a joyous romp of the counterintuitive and complex.

Here’s the big idea: In 1862 and 1865, July 4 marked not just the 86th and 89th anniversaries of America’s independence, but also the first telling and eventual publication (respectively) of Lewis Carroll’s seminal work of literary nonsense, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And July 4, 1883 marks both the 107th anniversary of our nation and the birth of Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist and sculptor whose intricate, crazed machines inspired the childhood frustration that was Mouse Trap, not to mention a popular OK Go YouTube video.

Rube Goldberg's "Self-Operating Napkin"

While there are many anniversaries I could commemorate (the declaration of the Republic of Hawaii in 1894, for instance), these two seemingly random events hold an essence that I’d like to see celebrated alongside our nationalistic rejoicing on the Fourth. Carroll’s masterpiece, although seen by many as just a tripped-out piece of fun, is in many ways an exercise in deconstruction and puzzlement, traveling through troubling and weird philosophical territory if one chooses to engage with it. Meanwhile the works of Goldberg encourage us to revel in complexity rather than simplicity, building up utterly absurd sculptural arguments that make us laugh, then marvel, then bow in deep respect to a mind that could have built it all. They are the ultimate exercises in taking the seemingly clear-cut and complicating the living hell out of it (for fun).

Both of these commemorations might seem frivolous. But they also contain a reminder to question, dissect, and engage. There’s a spark of the critical and the imaginative that encourages us to go deeper, challenging accepted wisdom and simplistic narratives. And that’s exactly what I feel is missing from the Fourth of July as we celebrate it now. So if some of us decide to infuse the Fourth with an alternative Goldberg Wonderland Day celebration every year, perhaps we can feed some of that ethos back into our co-revelers. Or, as a less lofty and more realizable goal, we can just crank up Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” have a nice tea party, and design ridiculous contraptions with which to fill each other’s cups. To me, that sounds just as fun, if not far better than invoking a dubious founding mythology and singing the national anthem under a sky of red, white, and blue fireworks.

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What I’m Celebrating Instead of America’s Birthday This Fourth of July