Freeing July 4th

Sam Smith, 2008 As I watched the July 4th parade in Freeport, Maine, it occurred to me that both left and right have got this holiday all wrong. They have nationalized it, politicized it, propagandized it and removed its soul. So we end up in a debate over patriotism symbolized by flag pins made by non-union workers in China. Or we read things like this from Matthew Rothschild of the Progressive Magazine: “It’s July 4th again, a day of near-compulsory flag-waving and nation-worshipping. Count me out. Spare me the puerile parades. Don’t play that martial music, white boy. And don’t befoul nature’s sky with your F-16s. You see, I don’t believe in patriotism. It’s not that I’m anti-American, but I am anti-patriotic. Love of country isn’t natural. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s an inculcated kind of love, something that is foisted upon you in the home, in the school, on TV, at church, during the football game.”

In fact, July 4 is the birthday of our country, and birthdays should be fun. Besides, as Mark Davis has noted, there’s a big difference between “the state,” and “our country” – the former a government and system that has done us great harm and the latter a place where our common story has unfolded. A place and a story we can love without having it inculcated or foisted upon us.

One reason we have such a hard time seeing this is because those at the top use the Fourth of July for their own purposes, leaving us with the choice of being either pompously nationalistic or perpetually grumpy.

You have to go to a place like Freeport to be reminded of this. Or to another town where I once lived – Bristol RI – which has the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in the United States, starting in 1785 and including outdoor concerts, soap box races and a parade that has attracted over 200.000 people.

Bristol’s nickname is “America’s most patriotic town.” That would undoubtedly sound awful to Matthew Rothschild, but here’s something he needs to know. In the last election, the Democratic candidate for senator got 53% of the town’s vote and Rep. Patrick Kennedy got 68%. Not exactly rightwing heaven. Nor is Freeport where 39% voted for the last Democrat for governor and only 23% for the Republican, with the remaining 38% split between the Green candidate and an independent.

How does it happen that such places can have July 4 celebrations that anyone, regardless of their politics, can enjoy?

In part because they are a celebration of a community within a land. On the fourth of July, in such places, all patriotism becomes local.

Here’s how the Providence Journal described the Bristol event:

“The Shriners were back in their funny cars and funnier costumes. There were not one, but two of the Red Sox’ World Series trophies. Polished marching bands strutted their stuff. And then there was Buddy.

In a parade with hundreds of participants that stretched over four hours, it was hard for anyone to steal the show. But former Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. came close. Cianci had been a virtual fixture in the parade since 1974, when he was first elected mayor of the capital city, until he was convicted of federal racketeering conspiracy in 2002 and sentenced to a five-year prison term. This was his first time back, and his return whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

Kim Madden, of Bristol, gave Cianci a big hug. “I love his marinara sauce,” Madden said. “I’d vote for him if he ran.” John Hugo, of Bristol, pushed his cell phone to Cianci’s ear so he could say hello to Hugo’s wife, Margaret. . .

The Mt. Hope High School marching band warmed up with “Soul Man.” Sgt. Daniel Clark, a former Massachusetts state policeman who now goes by the name “The Singing Trooper,” went through his voice exercises. The “Patriotic Stilt Walker” stood by in his red sequined pants. . .

Twenty-four performing groups and 20 floats took part in the parade. They included a Johnny Depp look-alike dressed as the Pirates of the Caribbean star, marching bands from Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and a team of Clydesdales.

Corny perhaps, excessive loyalty perhaps to corrupt ex-mayors with their own marinara brand, but hardly what fascism is made of.

If you had gone to the Freeport parade not knowing what it was about, you could have reasonably concluded that it was in honor of the volunteer fire department, which clearly got better play than either the local police or the military. And when they ran out of Freeport fire trucks, there were ones from other towns and from other times. Yes, there was a police honor guard and a vehicle with flags celebrating veterans, but when Freeport looked for something to symbolize America within its borders, it gravitated naturally to a collection of volunteer citizens who had kept the place from burning down.

The other major symbol of America in the parade was simply the truck. Added to the numerous fire vehicles was a collection of impressive six wheelers provided by local contractors and other businesses, far more appealing reminders of the hard work and machinery that built this country than any number of political speeches on the National Mall or fly-overs by F-16s.

There was also a giant LL Bean boot on a trailer, a minibus filled with Freeport elders led by an aged gentleman on an electric cart and, reported the Portland Press Herald, “The award for best neighborhood float went to the East Freeport Oar House, an elaborately costumed, if somewhat unrefined drill team, armed with oars and salty spirit. The trophy seemed appropriate – a 1922 Bates Manufacturing bowling trophy, picked up for $8 at a yard sale.”

This is what happened in two small towns this July 4. Just a few of the places that still remember what America is really about – beginning with their own communities, their own people and their own stories. From volunteer fire departments to a corrupt mayor that many still loved and still have the right to say so.

This is a story our national media and national politicians don’t tell. The right is busy ripping off the story for its own cynical ends, while a mostly urban left at best treats it as quaint and silly, at worst dastardly mind manipulation. And the media, unable to handle something that happens in so many places on the same day, blends it into a nationalistic myth.

The answer may lie in turning off your television next July 4th, avoiding any speeches, and finding the nearest small town parade. You could find yourself feeling good about America again.

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