It’s Time For Progressives to Reclaim the Fourth of July

From a story on by Christina Beltran headlined “It’s Time For Progressives to Reclaim the Fourth of July”:

The Fourth of July is, nearly universally, a day of relaxed celebration and ritual, from enjoying grilled hot dogs, potato chips and ice cream — hey, it’s a special occasion! — to gathering with neighbors to watch fireworks. But for progressives like myself, the holiday’s star-spangled flag-waving and patriotic songs and speeches extolling America’s greatness can feel hokey or even hostile.

In an increasingly polarized nation, overt declarations of national pride often morph into displays of aggressive nationalism tinged with xenophobia and jingoism. In today’s political climate, a crowd of Americans chanting “USA!” can sound more like a threat than an invitation.

Independence Day brings an uneasy political divide into focus: We are a nation split between those who believe America is a nation that requires a reckoning and those demanding only celebration.

On the latter side, consider former president Donald Trump’s proposal of a yearlong celebration of America’s 250th anniversary in 2026. In giving America’s founding “the incredible anniversary it truly deserves,” he calls for assigning a White House task force responsibility for throwing the “most spectacular birthday party.” To promote “pride in our history,” the 12-month “Salute to America 250” would gather teens to the capital for a national sporting contest, stage a “Great American State Fair” to showcase each state, and revive Trump’s moribund “National Garden of American Heroes.”

This sweeping, nationwide mandated celebration would offer no space for nuance, much less dissent. Trump’s patriotism is simplistic and restrictive, rejecting the notion that citizens under his leadership might feel alienation and anger toward a country to which they also feel passionately attached. For Trump, the nation is made up of “freedom-loving Americans” who support his vision and “thugs, misfits and Marxists” who seek to undermine that vision.

The insistence that true patriotism means pure adoration and celebration is evident in Republican attacks on any teaching that dares to acknowledge the existence of history that might taint a triumphalist account of inexorable American progress. Many conservatives see education about Native dispossession, chattel slavery and other forms of past and present discrimination as “indoctrination,” dividing Americans and mandating that white students feel bad about themselves and their place in U.S. history.

For progressives, such panic under the umbrella of critical race theory — or, in the workplace, DEI — is the real indoctrination, an effort to whitewash public life and erase from history the movements and populations they oppose. This feeling that discrimination is not only being ignored but actively endorsed was confirmed this past week when the Supreme Court ruled to dilute legal protections for LGBTQ Americans and to abolish affirmative action.

But if conservatives are uncomfortable confronting our violent and complicated past, we progressives struggle with how to celebrate this place we also love. Indeed, such political speech makes many of us skittish: How can we express civic pride in an era of right-wing backlash? How can we speak love of country when that country was built by stolen labor on stolen land? Uncomfortable with self-congratulatory and idealized depictions, progressives are more at ease with criticism than praise, more comfortable highlighting hypocrisy than extolling the aspects of American life that make us proud.

But highlighting the hypocrisy and violence is also incomplete. For one, it makes it easier for the right to caricature our beliefs and commitments. But more importantly, failing to articulate our complex feelings of grief and belonging is also an injustice to the reality of how much we feel and care about the future of this land. And while many of us may be uncomfortable with flag-waving nationalism, we do live the values and civic ideals that embody love of country. We are tied to this place we call home. And while many of us also have diasporic and transnational ties to other people and places we love, belong to, and care about, this does not diminish our sense of connection and love that we feel to this place — to local communities and even to nation.

I contend that our complicated feelings about America — our commitment, our heartbreak, our hopes, our fears — offer a way out of aggressive patriotism and into a better, more just and beautiful vision of civic life and belonging open to all of us.

We have an underutilized civic legacy to inspire us. We have Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in which Douglass labels America’s republicanism under slavery “a sham” while also claiming the Constitution as “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” We have the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration, a document patterned after the Declaration of Independence calling for voting rights and other political rights for women. We have the 1966 Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program, a document that concludes its demands for Black liberation by quoting the Declaration of Independence. We have Juneteenth marking the end of slavery, and LGBTQ+ pride festivals commemorating the Stonewall uprising.

These holidays and manifestos are also acts of America’s founding. Moreover, they are all civic events that make room for all our feelings — of joy, grief, desire, delight and rage. None of them are perfect, but they all remind us that the choice is not between reckoning or celebration.

We need something richer than patriotism — and something more than righteous indignation and anxious disavowal. As a people, we need reckoning and celebration.

So this Fourth of July, remember that this day is ours to claim. Celebrate what you love and mourn what’s been lost. And don’t forget to enjoy the fireworks.

Cristina Beltrán is an Associate Professor in the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University and co-editor of the journal Theory & Event.

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