My flag won’t be flying this July 4th
Our nation faces the most existential crisis since the Civil War
THERE’S NO FLAG flying above the front porch of our place in Maine this year. That flag was a personal expression of belief in the fundamental integrity and stolidity of this great 241-year-old experiment in self-governance. It was an expression of hope in the fundamental goodness and right-headedness of our people, who may have different ideological perspectives but are joined in their insistence that there be an essential decency in the minds and manners of our elected officials. In recognition of the harsh realities of the moment, there’ll be no flag flying this year.
I’ve struggled with this because I’m a sentimentalist at heart and as an adult I’ve always marked Independence Day as a time for putting aside partisan proclivities and pausing to marvel at what the Founders set in motion. As much as I am a sentimentalist I am also drawn to history, and while I understand the numerous hypocrisies, and the racist and sexist assumptions embedded in our founding documents, I have tempered the reality of those sentiments with the recognition that we have made important strides to overcome these to create a better nation. Not a perfect nation, to be sure, but a better one. That better nation is the product of two centuries of hard-fought compromises, and especially of a Civil War remarkable for the extent of the blood spilled and the suffering imposed, remarkable too for the sentiments expressed by the nation’s leader, who sought not retribution or revenge but “malice toward none, and charity for all.”
The people of this nation have borne many indignities, and suffered much, during our long and unfinished journey to build a nation that would someday make the Declaration’s great promise – of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a reality for every person, without exception. I have believed that despite the fundamental flaws inherent in fallible human beings, despite the ingrained prejudices that follow humanity through the ages, despite the inordinate power and privilege afforded to the wealthy and well-connected, this nation would ineluctably advance the cause of creating a society that offers hope, opportunity and equality to each of its residents. I say “residents” here purposefully, because the promise of the Declaration of Independence is a promise made not just to every citizen, but to everyone aspiring to be a citizen, and also to the refugee, the outcast and the stranger among us. The power of the promise is that it is neither selective nor situational.
The promise of the Declaration of Independence was advanced during the great era of progressivism and civil rights of the 20th century – the time when labor unions and enlightened legislation put a stop to abuses like child labor and the sweat shop, and set a standard for wages and work conditions that were global models; the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Three years ago the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made the same difference to many people in every state in the union. Not one of these milestones changed everything for the better, and each came much later than anyone can justify, but individually and collectively they mattered and made a real difference to real people. And so for year after year we flew our flag, a sentimental symbol of the nation Jefferson held out as the world’s “last, best hope.” But not this year.
Can a nation of our size, diversity, and history survive through a time when there are fewer ties that bind, when the center (as in Yeats’s prophesy) cannot hold and the worst are filled with passionate intensity? The center isn’t holding and indeed is held up to ridicule or disdain by both ideological extremes. This bodes ill for the future because it polarizes people and stands in the way of developing a civil society where values and responsibilities are shared. There’s too much anger out there these days, anger that shuts out reasoned debate and makes it difficult to build the cohesion we need. Unfortunately, much of that anger is justified.
There is a lot of anger to go around, fueled by the impulses of resentment and recrimination that have festered deep within the psyches of the dispossessed white middle class, drowning its feelings of hopelessness in a sea of opiates. There’s a lot of anger to go around, fueled by a law enforcement and criminal justice system that too often fails the African American community in ways that are deeply unjust. There’s a lot of anger to go around, when our business and political leaders have profoundly failed at navigating our once thriving middle class through the disruption and jobs loss that are the poisonous legacies of technology and globalization.
This anger is legitimate, but nonetheless dangerous and unproductive. A president who fuels the fire sparks emotions that are as dark and dangerous as the vision of “carnage” he offered on his first day. Those emotions have led many to embrace “resistance,” a word first used in the discussion of American values by Thomas Jefferson, who famously wrote to William Smith in 1787: “what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” Jefferson went on, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.” These are intemperate remarks under any generous reading of what Jefferson meant. Write something like that today and you’ll have the FBI investigating you faster than you can say WikiLeaks. What Jefferson saw as resistance we would (I hope) see as anarchy or worse. But it says much about the passions inflamed by the president and his alt-right supporters that people, who may not even realize its Jeffersonian roots, are even using the term resistance in 2017. Where will it lead?
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That singular achievement was long overdue and hard fought, but it was a milestone in American history, perhaps the most meaningful, tangible step toward achieving the promise of the Declaration for all of our people in our nation’s history since the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution. On July 2 this year, Donald Trump tweeted a video of a wrestling match from his TV celebrity days in which he was a participant, altered to superimpose the CNN logo on the foe he thrashed outside the ring. The contrast cannot be starker: one president acting to begin the long process of bringing equality to our land and binding up old wounds, another making a crude self-absorbed joke and fueling the flames of cynicism, resentment and anger. This nation needs help, it needs forward looking thinkers and compassionate legislators and a new generosity of spirit. We do not need crude jokes two days before Independence Day.I will read the Declaration on July 4 and probably take a long walk to reflect on my own life and pursuit of happiness. But there won’t be a flag flying on the front porch to greet me when I return. I know in my bones, I know deep in my heart, that our flag will fly again someday when our nation and its people are (in Lincoln’s words) “again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group, and a member of the board of TransitMatters.