What is this Fourth of July?

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history. Titled “What to the Slave is the Fourthof July,” Douglass slammed the hypocrisy of self-congratulatory freedom nostrums in a nation in which more than 4 million were held on bondage. About halfway through, Douglass hammered home his point with a poignant zinger:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

We have, of course, ended the scourge of slavery addressed by Douglass, but have we really addressed its substance? Slavery, as Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and a host of others reminded us, was but the institutional form of racism, and racism an ideology of self-interest we construct to take one class of individuals and deny them an equal place at the American table.

July Fourth often makes me feel a bit melancholy–especially lately. It reminds me of the old Tom Lehrer satirical song “National Brotherhood Week,” a lampoon of the idea that for one week of the year we’re supposed to pretend we like each other. July the Fourth is like that. We gather beneath the Stars and Stripes, pump our fists to a rousing John Philip Sousa march, ohh and ahh over fireworks, and worship the Founding demigods: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Paine, Madison–all men, by the way, of the Enlightenment who had profound doubts about the whole deity thing.

But never mind that. What unsettles me is the presumption that a few hollow civic rituals serve to mend all the fractures in American society. We can set aside our differences and revel in our common national oneness. Sometimes it feels as if we should figure out a way musically to segue from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “Kumbaya” and give each other a collective national hug.

That would be nice, if July 5 didn’t arrive to set us back upon our path of dividing brother from brother, sister from sister, black from white, wealthy from poor, straight from gay, immigrant from nativist, men from women, the faithful from the free thinkers, and those with power from the powerless. It would be very nice indeed if “USA, USA” meant something more palpable than a chauvinistic chant at an international sports match, or a drooling affirmation of military adventurism abroad.

When I read Douglass’ speech, it saddens me to think upon the timeless words in his speech, especially the references to hollow rituals and hypocrisy. I see the hate-filled faces outside the abortion clinics of Boston, on the border with Mexico, at Tea Party rallies, among the sexist leaders of the military, at Westboro Baptist protests, in suburban malls, and in the halls of Congress. My Kumbaya moment passes and I feel alienated, not a member a United States. I think upon a Scottish acquaintance who once told me that he and I had more in common than I had with most of the Americans he met outside of New England. I, like Douglas, find myself musing upon Scripture: As ye do unto the least of these, so you do unto me. And, frankly, all the freedom talk makes me think about how much of it is just as elusive now as it was 162 years ago. As the songwriter Eric Bogle put it:

            Chains, chains, chains–how many souls have died in freedom’s name?
            To some it is a way of life, to others just a word,
            To some it is a snow-white bird, to others a bloody sword.
            But until the last chain falls,
            Freedom will make slaves of us all.


Life in These Postmodern Times Part One

Those who read this blog know that I sometimes have issues–serious issues–with the way things (fail to) work in what John Prine calls the ‘big old goofy world.’ So here’s what I’m sure will be a semi-regular installment about things that amuse and/or piss me off.

Among the things that are just wrong!
1. Who was the genius that decided that men’s shorts can’t be? I’m tired of looking for actual chill-out pants only to encounter ‘shorts’ so long that they make me look like a land mine victim. To the hip-hop/NBA crowds who think these monstrosities are ‘fashion,’ one small suggestion: check out the mirror, dude!

2. While I’m on a trouser rant, who decided that every man in America has an even-sized waist size? Or that inseams start at 34”?  Don’t tell me I can just hem long pants, because that’s not true. I’m a freakin’ 29” inseam, so even if I find pants for my odd-sized waist, the crotch is roughly half way between my actual goolies and my knees.

3. One more for the fashion file. I can’t think of a single thing that makes me worry about national security more than the sight of some guy clad head to toe in camouflage who has a butt the size of Wyoming and a belly a blue whale was happy to lose. How about a national law that forbids the sale of military garb in sizes that would deem a recruit unfit to serve?

4. We know that oil and water don’t mix. Apparently oil and sanity don’t either. You’ve seen those mall come-ons where they display new cars in the aisles.  Today I saw several that gave me pause. The first was for a Fiat smaller than most people’s ovens that got a whopping 28 mpg.  Its ad copy bragged of a high-performance engine. First of all, there’s not enough room in that pile of tin for a high-performance cigarette lighter, let alone a big engine; second, is there anybody on the planet who thinks ‘Fiat’ and ‘high-performance’ in the same sentence?  Alas, that’s only the second dumbest car pitch I saw at the local mall. Our grand prize loser was a Jeep that seems to have been crossbred with a Brink’s truck and gets 14 mpg. So we’re fighting wars to secure soon-to-be-exhausted oil supplies so some egoist with a pimple for a brain can exercise his ‘freedom’ to poison the Big Blue Marble? Enough already. Time to put away the stupid toys and pass a law mandating every new car and truck must get at least 50 mpg–no exceptions.   

5. I was chatting with a friend about Michael Lewis’ new book about Wall Street. Among other subjects, Lewis looks at the use of fiber optic technology that gives the Big Money Boys a head’s-ups on what stock prizes will be a nanosecond before anyone else. In computing terms, a nanosecond is a long time—plenty, in fact, to allow those with the capacity to make millions. Everyone agrees the practice is unethical but, alas, it’s not illegal. So can someone explain the difference between the computer-assisted programs and old-fashioned insider trading, which is illegal?

6. NFL gridiron or World Cup football? The latter please.  Don’t be deceived by flashy promos and the NFL’s current awash-in-cash status; insiders are worried that American-style is an endangered species. It hasn’t caught on outside of the U.S. and Canada, and kids are gravitating toward soccer for several very good reasons: it’s cheaper, safer, and global. The more we learn about concussion syndromes, the less attractive football becomes. To be sure, football remains king in lots of places, but its future doesn’t look so rosy. If you live in one of those places trying to raise mega-millions to build a gridiron palace, you’d be in your civic right mind to work with groups opposing it.


Dwight and Nicole: Unchanneled Talent


Shine On
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TV viewers might recognize Nicole Nelson from The View, where she did a stunning version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." That's on her new album with Dwight Richter and the two of them are obviously quite talented. That's the good news. The bad is that this Burlington, Vermont duo hasn't really found a discernible groove. Richter's tastes are eclectic–Roy Orbison, funk, R & B, rock, jazz…. He's pretty good at drawing inspiration from all these roots, but he doesn't put his stamp on any of them. "Smile," for instance, has a splash of reggae but that's it–just enough to make you damp, not enough to soak you in the talent pool. Ditto "Plead," which could have crunched with some serious grunge, but instead crackles like rice cereal. There are three really good songs on this album, Nelson's Cohen cover, her cool jazz "Colorful Girls," and–my personal favorite–"Saturday." The last of these is bouncy, infectious folk-pop and it shines because she and Richter keep things simple and let the tune drive the arrangement. Too many of the tunes try too hard to impress and in so doing, sound generic. Nelson has a supple and powerful voice and, when he's on, Richter is as smooth as silk. I can't help but feel, though, that Nelson's m├ętier is jazz and that Richter simply needs to find his own voice instead of channeling influences from here and there. I know it's a cut-and-paste world these days, but not all collages work. –Rob Weir