Freedom’s Price Tag

Independence Day makes me feel conflicted.  Jingoism seems to be an international problem, and although patriotism is deemed next to saintliness, I have my doubts.  No nation is perfect *gasp!* and we would all do well to learn from others.  America is a nation in love with money and that affair has serious consequences.  One is our medical care system.  We’re one of the very few (if not only) “advanced” nations without universal medical coverage.  In fact, people routinely suffer because they lack insurance or their coverage doesn’t provide for what their physicians think is best.  This came home to me while staying with a family member who was hospitalized recently.  On the television the GOP was sponsoring ads against universal health care.  The irony was thick enough to be sickening.

Highly touted as the most affluent nation in the world, we refuse to take care of our own.  How am I supposed to get into the mood for Independence Day?  In Britain (as in most other places) they have universal health care.  I lived there for three years and knew that I could get treatment without emptying out the bank.  Here, in my native country, we have less care.  Someone might make a few dollars less, and that, we’re told, is unacceptable.  Anyone who’s experienced the illness of a family member knows the old one-two.  The treatment itself and the bills that come after.  Lately I’ve just been throwing up my hands and opening up my wallet.  It’s Independence Day.

Not that I’d expected much to change, but my first inkling of being a writer was winning a state-wide essay contest right here in Pennsylvania.  I wrote an essay on “Americanism” back in 1980.  It noted the false sense of righteousness that accompanied the notion.  I was an evangelical Christian then, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t cynical.  In my small town I’d seen John Cougar Mellencamp-level suffering.  I saw unemployment, drug use, and desperation.  I saw politicians saying everything was great and would be even better if we had more guns.  I saw trickle-down economics stemmed at the source.  I knew we were being lied to.  I did hope that things would get better, but now with the GOP fully behind 45 the true ugliness of jingoism has become clear.  It’s Independence Day and I feel sick.  I look across the ocean and see the nation from which we declared said independence suffering from a similar backlash.  But at least they can afford to go to the doctor.

Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

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The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.