Let's just say I'm not much of a flag-waver. I have always been a little ambivalent about the Fourth of July holiday. As a historian, I understand the significance of what happened on this date in 1776, and our collective need to commemorate it. And in terms of our history, it is the colonial era--whether it be English, French, Spanish or Dutch--that most interests me. I wholeheartedly agree that our Revolution and the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence which set our course as a nation are truly remarkable events in world history.
That said, a realistic, even-handed reading of the struggle reveals that George III made for an unlikely villain, and that of Britain's many possessions, we were the most pampered, privileged and prosperous. The Seven Years War (our French and Indian War) nearly bankrupted the Empire. And when asked to pony-up our share of the massive debt the Crown incurred in defending these very same colonies, well, the colonists were having none of it. We had been left to our own devices for too long, it seems. And the only thing that separated our glorious revolution from an ignominious one was the fact that we got away with it (thank you, France.) None of this means we should not celebrate the occasion, I'm just saying that I have never been carried away by all the hoopla surrounding the day.
When I was about 12 years old, I remember a conversation between my mother and my uncle--her brother-in-law. My mother was working in the kitchen, as usual, and my uncle was sitting there on a stool, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, no doubt, talking away. Two more dissimilar people could not be found, but they enjoyed each other's company, even though he was much more the conversationalist. My mother was the most literal, matter-of-fact person you would ever encounter. She did not speak the language of nuance and subtlety and shaded meanings. Symbolism was lost on her. Mother said exactly what she was thinking, regardless, and in her view it was the right thing to say because it was what she believed. As would be expected, this created lots of controversies through the years, but my dad was usually there to smooth things over, or at least pick up the pieces. She was fiercely loyal, but only to her tribe, her blood kin. It went no further. My uncle was a career Navy man. A life at sea had rescued him from both the Great Depression and an aimlessness in life. He circumnavigated the world 3 times and served in World War II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War. His experiences gave him a perspective my mother could never imagine.
Anyway, the conversation somehow turned to "the Flag." My uncle spoke eloquently of the honor and respect due the flag and its symbolism, etc. My mother, almost off-handedly, remarked that it did not mean anything to her at all, that it was just a piece of cloth. My uncle was left speechless, one of the few times I ever saw him at a loss for words. The discussion continued on, with my uncle becoming increasing frustrated with my mother's intransigence on the issue. And while I understood my mother's thinking--even at that age--I nevertheless sympathized with my uncle.
So, the Fourth was never a major holiday in our home. Generally, it fell during hay-baling season, so the day off simply meant that there was a good chance I would spend it in the hay field. There was always a good meal that night, perhaps with homemade ice cream, but that would be about it. Fireworks were never considered--"foolishness" in my mother's eyes.
My attitude at this stage of life lies somewhere between my uncle's and my mother's view. My "patriotism," if you want to call it that, or at least my loyalties, have much more to do with a particular piece of dirt that I live on, or my family lives on or has lived on. I have no particular feelings about our flag, or any other. In that sense, I recognize that I am my mother's son. I find American history to be unique, but not exceptional. We are not the end of history. Given enough time, there will be other configurations within what is now the United States, some maybe sooner than we would otherwise believe.
I respect and honor our soldiers, and now feel some regret that I did not serve in the armed forces myself. And when the caskets or maimed bodies of our young men are returned home from Mesopotamia or the Hindu Kush, from these most incomprehensible of incomprehensible wars, I am deeply saddened for them, their families and the utter waste of it all. And no amount of flag-waving, parades, Star-Spangled-Bannering or politicians eulogizing about their sacrifice in "defense" of our country helps one damn bit.