The Fourth and the Thirteenth

The Fourth of July -- "Independence Day" for this land of my birth, raising, and residence. My country created me, made me what I am. When it comes to the United States of America, I am equal parts misty romantic and indignant critic.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on 1776 July 4, declared the signers' intent to
institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Those principles were radical. The Declaration said:
All...are created equal,
It said that all of us are
endowed...with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
to secure these rights, governments are instituted..., deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
These are inspiring principles. They are at the core of my pride in being American -- and the ground of my criticism.

I'm also inspired by the words that this land of mine has on its Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Certainly no person is refuse. I understand Lady Liberty, as written by Emma Lazarus, to be saying: "Even if you have been treated as refuse, I welcome you. Even if your ethnos or class has been regarded as refuse by the prevailing prejudices of the powerful for centuries, I will take you in. Even if you have come to think of yourself as nothing but wretched refuse, I show my light for you, shine the way to the door of freedom for you, and thereby announce to the world, and to you, that you are nothing of the kind."

This land of mine has such truly great ideals. It has many good people and a system that has nurtured in some of my fellow citizens remarkable virtue and ingenuity. It is US culture that has cultivated that more modest measure of virtue and ingenuity to which I myself may lay claim. Yet my country is also built, from our very beginnings and running continuously throughout our history, on co-optation, corruption, and cynical manipulation of the very ideals that shape me, inspire me, and to which I continue to adhere. We are made possible, as the country we are, by profligate supply of resources -- the which we obtained through murder, theft, and chicanery on a grand scale.

The shame and pride go together. I came of age during the Vietnam War, when there was good cause for being ashamed of my country. At the same time, I was proud of my friends and mentors (most of whom I knew through my Unitarian Universalist church) who marched and demonstrated to end that war. I'm ashamed of our greed -- of the rapacity that brought us to the point where we, one-twentieth of the world's population, consume one-fourth of its resources, and of our unwillingness to retreat from this ravenous consumption (in fact, to say "ravenous" is rather unfair to the ravens). Yet the call within my own conscience for a simpler way of life, to walk with a lighter footprint on the earth, is but the echo of quintessentially USan thought: Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Duane Elgin, Bill McKibben, Joanna Macy -- writers whose turn of mind could not have come from Europe, or Asia, or South America, or even Canada (for all the wonderful contributions Canadians have provided to US culture). I'm so proud of them -- so proud to inherit their tradition, which is so deeply a US tradition. I'm ashamed at our ongoing belligerence, and our willingness to commit our troops to slay tens of thousands of people in order to secure access to cheap oil.

I'm proud of our independent judiciary, as secured by Marbury v. Madison (1803), our finest innovation of government, and grievously ashamed that this judiciary's highest court could have produced the Bush v. Gore (2000) decision -- not to mention Dred Scott (1857), Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Lochner v. New York (1905), Buck v Bell (1927), Korematsu v. US (1944), or Bowers v. Hardwick (1986).

I'm so proud of our Statue of Liberty, with its open-armed invitation of welcome, and I'm so ashamed that so many of my fellow country-men and -women, with willful and passionate ignorance, so approve of revoking that very invitation.

The proudest I can recall ever feeling about being USan was 19 years ago, in a movie theatre, watching "Apollo 13" (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris). Although the film does pass the Bechdel test, it's definitely about male heroism of the mostly geeky sort.

In space, the Apollo 13 spacecraft sustains damage. As the extent of the damage becomes clear in Houston, NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) declares:
We've never lost an American in space, we're sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.
A way to fix a broken craft 200,000 miles away must be found. Kranz again:
I don't care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do.
Cut to several technicians dumping onto a table boxes containing equipment and tools that the astronauts have with them.
We've got to find a way to make this...
says one of the technicians, holding up a square CSM LiOH canister,
...fit into the hole for this...
he adds, holding up a round LEM canister.
...using nothing but that.
He gestures to the motley jumble of supplies on the table.

Yes, it was hubris that put us out into space. Hubris, and greedy, grasping, imperial acquisitiveness, backed by the amazing wealth we had available to us by virtue of the aforementioned murder, theft, chicanery. Yes, the Apollo missions were an extension of the arms race, designed to demonstrate to the world, particularly the Soviet Union, that the US had capabilities that could be used to precisely deliver nuclear warheads anywhere on the globe.

All that. And more. We have a capacity for awe and wonder that is the equal of our arrogance and belligerence. Our inquisitiveness is not less than our acquisitiveness. "American spunky can-do spirit" is not a lie. Neither is our history of theft, injustice, and oppression. Yes, Apollo was fundamentally a military project for asserting world dominance. That's true. And so is this:
"But a funny thing happened to us on our way to the moon. We looked homeward and discovered another world: our own. For the first time, we inhabitants of Earth could step back and see it as it really is: one world, indivisible -- and kind of small in the cosmic context. Whatever the reason we first mustered the enormous resources required for the Apollo program, however mired it was in cold war nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected gift of Apollo. A project conceived in deadly competition made us recognize our community." (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey)
We sent these amazingly expensive boxes up into outer space -- and when one of them broke, we fixed it well enough to get the astronauts safely home. We fixed it with duct tape, cardboard, a plastic bag, and a US-style of cleverness born out of self-confidence (which, yes, also manifests as arrogance) and loyal devotion (which, yes, also manifests as nationalism).

It made me cry. Still does.

The Fourth of July.

The Thirteenth Apollo mission.

I don't know if it will ultimately prove necessary for the survival of the earth that the culture that is distinctively US pass away. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. If so -- and in the unlikely event that I'm still around -- I will miss it, and grieve the loss of this glory -- along with, I hope, celebrating its replacement by a saner, wiser, less independent and more interdependent, sustainable culture.


  1. Funny you should say this - I got up this morning listening to the reciting of the Declaration of Independence and was struck by a mix of shame and of hope, torn between loving it here, and carrying the burden of knowing the awful history and current practices. As in the movie, Contact, when the species from another planet meets a human and says, You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.. Indeed.

  2. I was also fortunate enough to hear a reading this morning on NPR by many different folks from what I guess are different states of the US and from different countries. How inspiring it was! I have taught American History and when I teach the Declaration and other American documents, I am both inspired by their goals and saddened by the many ways in which this nation has failed to live up to them. I admit to putting aside by professional educator objectivity and urge my students to take an active part in bringing us closer to their ideals. As I am urging them, I am reminding myself to keep the flame alive.