A dank, cool, often showery Independence Day weekend provided a soft landing from the heat and tropical humidity of the previous week, and if the traffic on the back roads is any indication, excellent weather for long walks, bike touring or rescuing salamanders from their impetuous jaywalking.
Some Vermonters were limited to watching festivities on television, although fireworks are an incendiary dish best served piping hot and in person. Places where conditions were more cooperative celebrated loudly and clearly, projecting not only patriotism but American diversity as well, which begs a question or two.
While July 4 traditionally commemorates the country gaining freedom from Great Britain in 1776 (July 2, to be precise), some Americans waited 89 additional years for the Emancipation Proclamation to be liberated from bondage at the hands of other Americans.
Hence, Juneteenth — marking the end of slavery — was at long last recognized as a federal holiday this year, opening a much-needed yet frequently rancorous national discussion about race in America with truth, justice and history up for debate and political affiliations the driving force.
When Vanessa Williams hosted “A Capitol Fourth” on PBS, it was announced that she would sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has become known as the Black National Anthem. In a promo prior to her performance, she cited Juneteenth and, according to CNN, was immediately slammed by conservative social media’s outrage machine, calling it “divisive,” “segregationist” and “racist.”
It seems far easier for staunch conservatives to acknowledge discrimination and bigotry if they believe it’s coming from a Black person.
Nothing, including the country’s health and welfare, goes untarnished by politics in 2021. The weekend was to be our national coming-out party, the final curtain on the pandemic that has cost over 600,000 lives, but with as many as 40 percent of those deaths deemed preventable by the medical journal Lancet, the politics of mask-wearing comes into deadly focus.
As the Delta variant threatens to become dominant, quite possibly creating new waves of COVID going into the autumn, over 30 percent of Americans — primarily in red states — say they have no intention of getting vaccinated.
While apple pie, baseball games, concerts and barbecues are Fourth of July traditions, nothing is quite so American as shooting each other, and the holiday weekend was certainly no exception, with over 500 incidents of gun violence claiming nearly 200 lives, including several children. Violent crime in general and gun homicides in particular increased 33 percent in 2020 as the pandemic ravaged the country. As things open and restrictions lift, there are rising fears among law enforcement officials that this summer could be the bloodiest in decades.
Yet, coming to some consensus regarding the Second Amendment’s place in modern society, even considering a rising casualty rate and weapons of war increasingly becoming the guns of choice, remains near impossible.
But apart from our divisions — right versus left, red versus blue and the national unity that seems more elusive every day — the majority of Americans seem to be in agreement on a variety of important aspects of where the country should be headed post-pandemic. A public opinion survey by the Center for American Progress finds that one priority is that we want “less fighting in politics and more cooperation, carried out with a shared purpose focused on national economic improvement and the well-being of all people.”
Despite a pronounced deterioration of bipartisanship in the government itself and a yawning abyss between the far right and far left of each political persuasion, most people in the vast center show a “basic willingness to turn the page on division and embrace new models of governance focused on cooperative actions to tackle some of the nation’s biggest challenges.”
While the volume and visibility of America First has been prominent the last couple of years, most voters actually “recognize the need for the country’s domestic and international policies to work together to produce gains and protect the interests of American workers and businesses.”
Willingness to turn the page and move on works better as a concept at this stage simply because we’re at a point where, however enchanting the prospect of indivisibility might be, neither side wants to be the first to blink.
Most of us who’ve participated in meetings of any kind understand that it’s easier to say things than it is to subsequently do those things without muttering, “What have I gotten myself into?” Compromise seems to have become so dirty a word in mainstream American politics it is often looked upon as weakness, a fatal flaw in any negotiation process.
Bridging the gap between liberal and conservative thought and everything in between will require the kind of humility that writer-theologian C.S. Lewis described as “not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less,” a characteristic sorely lacking in our top-of-the-food-chain politicians.
It’s extremely difficult to imagine, for instance, the Ted Cruzes of the world voluntarily stepping out of the limelight without sufficient encouragement from the Texas electorate, but the Fourth of July crowds did offer a semblance of hope that such things might be possible.
Whether you spent the weekend marching in or watching a parade, chowing down at a community barbecue, or saving salamanders from themselves, exercising those precise choices is what America is traditionally about — an independent nation with the individual right to choose so ingrained that we often take it for granted.
We certainly have our differences, but the amplification of those differences has been largely manufactured by the politics permeating our culture. They are the ones who benefit. Most of us don’t.
All Americans deserve better. We should collectively demand better.
Walt Amses is a writer and former educator who lives in Vermont.