Sunday, July 4, 2010

I blame the Bicentennial

Independence Day creates a dilemma for liberals.

How do you express your pride in your country without being mistaken for some paranoid loon with an arsenal in his basement?

Of all the crimes committed by the right wing in recent times, one of the worst is the hijacking of America’s symbols.

Look at any conservative website (or at least its home page—go further at your own risk). You’re likely to see any combination of the following:

*The American flag, or some other combination of red, white, and blue
*The bald eagle
*Words like “liberty” and “freedom” (never clearly defined, of course)
*Anything connected with the American Revolution

The Colbert Report is especially good at parodying the right-wing look—and outlook. At least I think it’s a parody.

Compare these sites to the liberal website Daily Kos. Kos’ most prominent color is burnt orange, and its main visual image is a man waving a flag that may or may not be the U.S. flag (several other countries have flags with similar horizontal stripes). A person unfamiliar with American politics would have to do a little reading to determine the site’s country of origin.

The worst part of this phenomenon is the portrayal of the American Revolution as an exclusively conservative movement. Right-wingers constantly support their views by invoking the Founding Fathers, as if they somehow know that people who have been dead for 200 years would support their ideas. “Why, of course, George Washington would have wanted every paranoid schizophrenic to have access to an AK-47…”

While liberals have just as much of a right to don three-cornered hats, brandish muskets and quote Patrick Henry, you never see them doing that. Why?

I blame the Bicentennial.

For those who may have forgotten, may have tried to forget, or weren’t born yet, 1976 was a strange year in America. Maybe it was part of the recovery process from Watergate, but the whole nation devoted an entire year to patting itself on the back.

Everywhere you went, the country was bathed in red, white and blue. The media were loaded with programming about American history, particularly the Revolution. CBS ran its “Bicentennial Minute” every night, which told what happened 200 years ago that day—the problem being that most of the events were pretty mundane. “200 years ago today, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his cousin, and every “s” in it looked like an “f,” zzzzzzz………..” The Bicentennial logo was everywhere from government buildings to sports jerseys. Fire hydrants were even painted to look like Revolutionary War soldiers!

I was 10 at the time—and don’t get me started on the school curriculum. Every school subject, with the possible exception of math, centered on the American Revolution. Which is something kids should learn about, but it seemed as if it were the only event in our nation’s history. There was a traveling exhibit called the Freedom Train, which I visited twice, but I’ll be damned if I could remember any artifact that was on the train. (Shame, really--some of them sound pretty impressive.) There was a school program where each of us dressed up as a figure from the Revolution and read some dry facts about that person off index cards. I remember wearing a puffy shirt and knickers and telling a roomful of parents about George Washington. And the local middle school presented a musical called “Let George Do It,” which I haven’t seen staged anywhere since. One of the few songs from it I recall was called “Cooperation”:

Things will operate (clap!) more straight
Things will operate (clap!) more straight
Things will operate (clap!) more straight
If we all cooperate, cooperate
Cooperate, cooperate

Come to think of it, those lyrics don’t exactly sound like they’re about the beginnings of a democracy…

So what does the Bicentennial have to do with patriotism being such a one-sided affair nowadays? I contend that it overloaded the country with red, white and blue to the point where any thinking person had enough of it to last a lifetime. For many people, patriotism died of overexposure.

Maybe it wasn’t necessarily the Bicentennial, but something happened since then that has driven patriotism squarely into the hands of the reactionary and the jingoist. As hokey and excessive as the Bicentennial was, I don’t recall it being limited to people of a certain political viewpoint. Everybody was invited to the party.

When people speculate on the intents of the Founding Fathers, they might do well to ask themselves if they intended to limit the benefits of the new nation to those who agreed with them.