Monday, July 2, 2012

I haven't actually celebrated the 4th of July in a long time. 1994, I think, was the last time I joined a group of people to drink beer and watch the fireworks. It was atop the ruins of Katsuren Castle in Okinawa, and the fireworks display was visible from Kadena Air Force Base on the other side of the island.

I have noted before how Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for hokum. They like to be reminded that they're living in the greatest country in the world. It isn't so much the message that I find tiresome, since I happen to agree with it. It's the fulsome and saccharine language and imagery with which the message is so often delivered that I object to.

The feelings that I have for my country are powerful but complex. I prefer the more subtle and sensible expressions of patriotic feeling. This 4th of July, I'm italicizing two speeches that, for me, capture the soul of the holiday better than most others.

From Abraham Lincoln's Reply to Judge Douglas at Chicago on Popular Sovereignty, the
Nebraska Bill, etc. July 10, 1858:

"Now, it happens that we meet together once every year, somewhere about
the 4th of July, for some reason or other. These 4th of July gatherings,
I suppose, have their uses. If you will indulge me, I will state what I
suppose to be some of them.

"We are now a mighty nation: we are thirty, or about thirty, millions of
people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land
of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for
about eighty-two years, and we discover that we were then a very small
people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a
vastly less extent of country, with vastly less of everything we deem
desirable among men. We look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous
to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away
back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of
prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as
our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men; they fought for the
principle that they were contending for, and we understand that by what
they then did, it has followed that the degree of prosperity which we
now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind
ourselves of all the good done in this process of time,--of how it was
done, and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and
we go from these meetings in better humour with ourselves,--we feel more
attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we
inhabit. In every way we are better men, in the age and race and country
in which we live, for these celebrations. But after we have done all
this, we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else
connected with it. We have, besides these men--descended by blood from
our ancestors--among us, perhaps half our people who are not descendants
at all of these men; they are men who have come from Europe,--German,
Irish, French, and Scandinavian,--men that have come from Europe
themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here,
finding themselves our equal in all things. If they look back through
this history, to trace their connection with those days by blood, they
find they have none: they cannot carry themselves back into that
glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us; but
when they look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find
that those old men say that "we hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral
sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that
it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a
right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of
the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration; and so they are. That
is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of
patriotic and liberty-loving men together; that will link those
patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of
men throughout the world."

The other speech is delivered in the movie Meet John Doe by veteran character actor James Gleason. He's drunk, and has something to tell Gary Cooper:

"You're a nice guy, John. I like you. You're gentle. I like gentle people. Me? I'm hard — hard and tough. Yep, I'm hard. But you want to know something? I've got a weakness. You'd never guess that, would you? Well, I have. Want to know what it is?
The Star Spangled Banner. Screwy, huh? Well, maybe it is. But play the 'Star Spangled Banner' — and I'm a sucker for it. It always gets me right here — [points at his chest]. You know what I mean? It gets me right back here. [points to the back of his neck] You weren't old enough for the first world war, were you? Course not. Must have been a kid. I was. I was just ripe. And rarin' to go. Know what my old man did when I joined up? He joined up too. Got to be a sergeant. That's a kick for you. We were in the same outfit. Funny, huh? He was killed, John. I saw him get it. I was right there and saw it with my own eyes. Me? I came out of it without a scratch. Except for my ulcers. Should be drinking milk. This stuff's poison. Yessir. I'm a sucker for this country. I'm a sucker for the Star Spangled Banner — and I'm a sucker for this country. I like what we got here! I like it! A guy can say what he wants—and do what he wants — without having a bayonet shoved through his belly. Now, that's all right, isn't it? All right. And we don't want anybody coming around changing it, do we? No, sir. No, sir. And when they do I get mad! I get b-boiling mad. And right now, John, I'm sizzling! I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself - I get mad for a guy named Washington! And a guy named Jefferson—and Lincoln. Lighthouses, John! Lighthouses in a foggy world! You know what I mean?"

Watch the scene here.

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