You’re Free on Independence Day

An antique car drives down Main Street during a July Fourth parade in Barnstable, Mass., in 2014. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
There’s no prescribed way to celebrate July 4th. And that’s the best part of it.

Donald Trump is recruiting some Abrams tanks and obsessing about some of the choreography for an Independence Day parade in Washington D.C. He wants it to be militaristic, bombastic, and he wants to be at the center of it. I couldn’t care less. And, I wonder why anyone else does.

I can’t remember ever paying attention to how this day was celebrated in the capital city. In recent years I’ve taken my kids to a minor league baseball game in Hartford. Or spent time at my in-laws having a a small family cookout. When I was in my twenties and trying to win over the woman who is now my wife, we went to a park and saw an outdoor orchestra attempt to time the very Russian 1812 Overture to a fireworks show. There’s something delightful about celebrating with artifacts from these two supposed geopolitical rivals. I remember one year spent at our beloved Sea Isle City, in New Jersey, and watching as the legal professionals and illegal amateurs put on fireworks shows up the coast, stretching upward through Ocean City to Atlantic City. This year we’re escaping our hot apartment and taking the kids to an indoor waterpark and resort.

There have been recurring elements. The fireworks and hotdogs. Family time. But there’s no prescribed way to celebrate July 4th. And that’s the best part of it. Thanksgiving is governed by family traditions. Christmas is governed by religious ones. New Years, at least for the young and single, is governed by the manic desire to find someone to kiss at midnight. July 4th is whatever you make of it.

July 4th commemorates a political event — the signing of the Declaration: a document full of ideological claims and a fair bit of rip-roaring propaganda. (Damn you King George, for allowing free worship for French-speaking Catholics in a neighboring territory!) But our July 4th celebrations are remarkably non-ideological.

Other nations are not so blessed. I spent a few years reflecting on the meaning of Irish independence, which is celebrated according to the liturgical year, attached to Easter Monday. The Irish are often subjected to an ideological excavation of their independence. And they have had reasons in living memory to look around with some sadness, and ask “Was it for this?”

Last year, I paid attention to Hungary’s March 15th celebrations, which mark the Revolution of 1848. That nation’s leader, Victor Orban, turned it into a campaign rally seen round the world. It had rousing themes about Hungary’s remarkable and improbable survival as a nation. But it also had at its heart a nasty denunciation of George Soros — a native son of Hungary — at the center of it.

In the last couple of years, some outlets like the New York Times and Vox will run articles questioning the War of Independence. But I suspect no one takes these seriously. It’s an attempt at generating a few hate clicks during a slow news week.

Unlike Ireland, America is blessed by its geography and history with an ability to not care so much about the British, and not agonize so much about our now old history of conflict with them. Unlike Hungary, America doesn’t feel itself to be so vulnerable, so we don’t celebrate our mere survival, or solemnly remind ourselves of the preciousness of independence. We just have fun. We eat hamburgers and hot dogs which may have German origins. We pull out Chinese fireworks, and Russian symphonic pieces. My guess is even a huge number of people who would be happy to wear the epithet “nativist” to mark their views on immigration will nonetheless be eating hummus or guacamole while they watch Trump review the tanks.

And this is as it should be. The most perspicacious of the English understood that as soon as Americans started to get beyond the Appalachian mountains, we would be cut off from the motherland. Some of them thought we would revert to a kind of semi-barbarian form of life out there. Maybe a few of us have.

Adore, deplore, or ignore Trump. Who cares? It’s Independence Day and you’re free to do as you please.


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