By Tom Robotham
Of all the holidays we celebrate in this country, the Fourth of July is my least favorite. One reason is that it brings back unpleasant memories from childhood. Back then, in my neck of the woods, at least, it was dominated by one thing: illegal fireworks.
Initially, I was fascinated by them and, without my parents’ knowledge, would always manage to get my hands on a few packs of Black Cat firecrackers. As I got a bit older, though, the constant noise—which started to become pervasive weeks before the Fourth—began to rattle my nerves. My antipathy deepened as I saw more and more evidence of the damage they could do. One neighborhood kid lost three fingers when an M80 blew up in his hand. Another lost an eye, after an acquaintance of ours shot a bottle rocket directly at her at an outdoor party.
Oh sure, there were also parades and such. But I hated them as well. One that stands out in my mind occurred during my brief stint in the Cub Scouts. When our den leader signed us up to march in it, I thought the idea was kind of cool. But for reasons I can’t remember, the parade devolved into chaos at one point, as scores of Scouts and Little Leaguers broke into a stampede. I managed to keep my footing—barely—but I remember seeing other kids fall to the ground, screaming.
Through it all, the Fourth never once stirred in me a sense of patriotism—and never has to this day. For most of America, it seems, it’s nothing more than an excuse for backyard cookouts, blowout sales and mindless flag-waving, which to my mind is the antithesis of true patriotism. In the modern era, after all, the flag has been cheapened, what with the stars and stripes emblazoned on everything from baseball caps to bikinis.
It’s disheartening because I firmly believe that the American idea is a thing of enduring beauty. The upcoming Fourth, it seems to me, could be a good time to reflect on where we are as a nation—what we’ve been through the past year—and whether or not we remain committed to the task of forming a more perfect union, as the Constitution’s preamble puts it.
FIRST, LET’S CONSIDER the developments of the last 12 months or so. I think it’s fair to say that the Covid pandemic was foremost on most people’s minds. But the response to it revealed the deep divisions that had been festering in our country for a long time, as millions of Americans refused to wear masks or honor social-distancing guidelines, and even denied the very existence of the virus. Moreover, it led to a significant spike in assaults on Asian-Americans—the result of Trump’s “China Virus” drumbeat. Apparently, some of his supporters concluded that if the virus came from China that must mean the guy who owns their neighborhood Chinese restaurant bears responsibility.
Yes, there was an upside: American-based pharmaceutical companies led the way in rapid development of vaccines, proving that our nation is still home to scientific innovators. At the same time, however, the streak of American hostility toward science and scientists was evident, as folks like Dr. Fauci began receiving death threats simply because they were reporting the latest findings.
At the height of the pandemic, in turn, we witnessed America at its best and its worst, as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the land in response to the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd. On the one hand, it was encouraging to watch the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history unfold. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the fact that outbreaks of violence stained the otherwise peaceful protests, thus giving ammunition to those were inclined to dismiss the whole affair. Nor can we ignore Trump’s expressed disdain for the movement, as he ordered a brutal assault on an entirely peaceful protest so he could pose in front of a church where had never worshipped and hold up a Bible that he had never read.
Finally, between November and January, we learned that our democratic process still had some life left in it—barely. The relentless efforts to overturn the election—culminating in a violent insurrection at the Capitol—showed us just how fragile the American experiment had become. And the fact that Republicans are still trying to sweep the insurrection under the rug—while aggressively striving to undermine our election process—proves that it remains perilously fragile to this day.
AND YET, HERE WE ARE, with our nation approaching its 245th birthday, and the outlook is not entirely bleak. The pandemic seems to be dying out, in spite of the fact that millions of Americans still refuse to do their civic duty by getting vaccinated.
Moreover, we have a president who is not only a decent man—a huge relief in and of itself—but who is asking us to choose excellence over mediocrity and boldness over fear. For far too long—way before Trump considered running for office—our nation has been stuck in the mire of small-minded thinking. And I must say, I blame the Democrats every bit as much as I blame Republicans. At any rate—regardless of who’s to blame—we’ve failed our founders on numerous fronts, from the crisis of our crumbling roads and bridges to the epidemic of gun violence. The Flint water crisis alone proved that we have no business calling our nation the “greatest country in the world.”
It would be an accomplishment indeed if we could just find a way to address such crises. But simply fixing things that are broken still won’t lift us to the level of greatness that has been the promise and potential of our nation from the beginning.
What I like about Biden is his determination to do more than address the consequences of our neglect. He is calling on us to rally—to us to rise up and meet the future with vision and exuberance in our approach to everything from transportation infrastructure to education.
My thinking about this was shaped by the era in which I grew up. As it so happens, I was born on the very day—June 29, 1956—that President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. Six years later, President Kennedy set forth the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
I grew up, too, with parents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II—a period in which FDR embodied America’s can-do spirit and put forth bold initiatives like the Social Security Act of 1935.
Alas, by the time I came of age, we had entered a period of malaise—or what President Carter called a “crisis of confidence.” He was spot on, but unfortunately lacked the leadership skills to bring us out of it. President Reagan, by contrast, talked a good game, but in reality tried to lead a retreat into the past, with actions ranging from the dismantling of the solar panels Carter had installed on the White House to vilifying people on welfare.
And so it went, with so many other polices, such as the wasteful and cruel “war on drugs,” which had been started by Nixon, was amped up by Reagan and—most notably—was enthusiastically embraced by Clinton.
For most of my adult life, in short, America has been a nation beset by a siege mentality. Trump’s “wall” was just the latest representation of this.
It is impossible to soar to great heights of excellence while living in fear. By fear I’m not just talking about wild, irrational fears that manifest themselves in violence. I’m also talking about the more mundane kind that manifests itself in the we-can’t-afford-it response. Funny how those very same naysayers never present this argument when it comes to undertaking costly wars.
It’s noteworthy, moreover, that critics of Kennedy grumbled about the cost of the Apollo mission. Thankfully, he knew that we couldn’t afford not to undertake bold initiatives. Over the course of his career, Biden has been slow to embrace this same bold thinking. For much of his political life he was part of the small-minded establishment. But now, at long last, he’s striking the right chords.
It remains to be seen whether he will go down as a great president. But after a year in which our nation was nearly destroyed by fear and hatred, he has presented the right message for the Fourth: surely we can do better.