Fourth can do without the political theater

Published 9:02 pm Tuesday, July 7, 2020

short rows headerThis year’s Fourth of July was tamped down thanks to the pandemic that thus far is known to have infected 2.8 million Americans and killed 132,000 of us. And so, many of us stayed away from crowds Saturday, just as the nation’s smartest health officials urged and common sense dictated.


The self-imposed isolation offered a chance to reflect on Fourths of July, past and present.

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During the mid-20th century, Independence Day celebrations, when they were held, were generally local events, and here in Isle of Wight, there were few if any other than family get-togethers.

There are several reasons, I believe, for the more low-key approach in those days as opposed to the super-hyped approach today.

First, Americans back then were simply tired. The adults of my youth had lived through the Great Depression and a World War. The first had destroyed the wealth of millions of Americans, and the second took the combined energy of virtually every American, in one way or another, to win.

They actually celebrated being American every day by rebuilding the country and building their own futures and were too busy doing that to do a lot of flag waving.

And the whole idea of patriotism was different back then. Nobody said much about being a patriot. Most Americans just were. They didn’t have to wear a red- white-and-blue shirt to show they loved their country. They’d either been fighting from Normandy to Iwo Jima or were back home making tanks and growing food to supply the troops and give the world a shot at freedom. Their labors were proof enough of their loyalty.

Since then, the concept of patriotism has taken on a new, and too often, more negative dimension. People who wear their patriotism on their sleeve often view themselves as “more American” than those who don’t. And that attitude is frequently used as a political cudgel, a way of dividing us. In a nation that prides itself on individualism, heaven help the individual who publicly marches to a different drummer on political and social issues.

Like so many things in our lives, this patriotism on steroids can be blamed at least in part on communications. Television’s ability to reach mass markets offered all Americans a chance to share in celebrating the Fourth, and as a result, wouldn’t it be nice to have “national” celebrations. The first one was actually televised shortly after World War II, but not many people saw it because not many people had a television.

As communications improved, the celebrations became larger, more choreographed and more popular. To their undying credit, the organizers of this national outpouring of patriotism kept politics out of it. Not to say politicians don’t love the Fourth. They have always been attracted to Fourth of July parades like bees to honey. But the national celebrations have always been intentionally and appropriately nonpolitical.

Until now. Beginning last year with the president’s Third World-styled militarized event at the Lincoln Memorial, and continuing this past Friday with his angry call for divisiveness delivered at Mt. Rushmore, the Fourth has been sullied. One more “norm” has been discarded, one more opportunity for Americans to feel that we are all one has been cast aside.

Americans have fallen for the current political trend thanks in large part to the divisiveness that is a natural outgrowth of super patriotism. The “I’m better than you” mentality that so often infects religion has now completely tainted our national civil religion — the Republic.

And the tragedy is that it’s occurring when we most desperately need unity. The pandemic that is infecting more than 50,000 new victims each day doesn’t give a tinker’s damn that there’s an election coming this fall. It doesn’t care one iota whether you wear red, white and blue on the Fourth. And it most certainly doesn’t care whether you are a Republican or Democrat. It’s out to kill you, and you would think a nation that saved the world for democracy could unify long enough to beat this thing without political interference.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is