From the heart of the Civil War

Thoughts on our country this Independence Day

vol. 1 issue 15

The Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga. Photo: Brigitte Werner from Pixabay 

vol. 1, issue 15


One summer weekend, nearly thirty years ago, I found myself about an hour or so north of Toronto in Barrie, Ontario. I had volunteered to work at the Mariposa Folk Festival where somehow, as a member of the volunteer security team, I was awarded the pleasure of escorting American country music singer Emmy Lou Harris from the performer services tent to the stage. I remember the little saguaro cacti stitched into the design of her cowboy boots; on either side of the welt of each boot, the quintessential American desert plants glowed green in the twilight.

I was young, and not so tough; I am not sure what I would have done if anyone would have approached her, but no one did, so it didn’t matter. It’s unlikely anyone would have, being that this was a Canadian crowd, and as polite as the stereotype holds Canadians to be: to have interfered with a celebrity en route to perform would have been virtually unthinkable. Maybe that’s why as the sole American on the team, despite having the least seniority, I was tasked with accompanying Harris. Compared with Canadians, I am told, we Americans are more comfortable with celebrity, and feel more compelled to mingle with it.

That weekend in Canada, I noted another difference between us and our northern neighbors, one that I think of often during times that we set aside for overt displays of patriotism such as today.

Hoisted above many of the tents pitched by festival-goers around the stadium grounds, the red Maple Leaf, Canada’s national flag, flew in the early summer breeze. It was two weeks before Canada Day, their national day of patriotism. This was a folk music festival, mind you. It was cheek to jowl with the same sort of music lovers who would have attended the Newport or Philadelphia Folk Festivals here in the States. But how many times have you been to an American folk music (read: hippie) festival where you saw the Stars and Stripes raised un-ironically?

As I did then, I still envy those Canadian counter-culturists who did not flinch from their patriotism. Not Canadian Liberal and proud, not Canadian Conservative and proud, just Canadian and proud.

Of course, it is a nation with distinctly partisan views and with rips in the fabric of what it means to be Canadian. I have sat at the dinner tables of Canadians engaged in pitched battle over matters of national debate, such as whether it should officially be a bi-lingual country, whether Quebec should secede, whether reparations are owed the indigenous peoples there. I also know that these past three decades have deepened divides over many issues. But it was an unmistakable pride that prompted those Northern hippies to take the time to fly their Maple Leaves, and it demonstrated to me that unlike us Americans, Canadians are more unified than divided by their love of country.

Now, as then when I was younger, when I see multiple American flags flying at a mass gathering, until it is proven to me otherwise, I understand the assemblage of flags to be shorthand for belief in a Christian God, the sanctity of the Second Amendment, and an intolerance for realities that do not adhere to strictly defined masculine and feminine roles. In other words, I see it as a distinct statement of Us vs. Them.

It troubles me that I do this, but it is a habit borne of experience, and since I am a practical person, when I develop a habit, it’s usually because it affords me a certain desirable outcome. To assume what I have just described means I know how to modify my behavior to avoid unnecessary conflict, something I value.

This is not to say that Americans who feel ashamed or even just ambivalent about flying our flag are more patriotic or enlightened in some way. As pious as are the aggressively patriotic, so can the sneerers be sanctimonious; I similarly seek to avoid conflict with this group, as well.

I just wish that I could fly the flag, pledge my allegiance, and love my country without it being co-opted by one and scorned by the other.

As I write this from where I am vacationing with family in Tennessee, I realize this is a desire that will go unfulfilled this year. That is because back home where I now reside in Washington, DC, the nation’s annual Independence Day celebration is underway, reflecting what divides, not unifies, these two camps of Americans – flag lovers and flag hesitators, I will call them.

Our national celebration features tanks and other war craft. This is not how we have celebrated our national day of patriotism in times past. It is the brainchild of our current president to militarize our national holiday of patriotism.

Even though I have lived north of here for years, I am of the South; the homing device within me points this way. When you grow up in the South, you are always aware at some level that you walk among the ghosts of national discord. No matter one’s take on North-South relations, whether it favors a Lost Cause Narrative or a sympathy for the Northern abolitionists, an awareness that there are differences of opinion over what patriotism looks like is as integral to a Southerner’s being as is a craving for sweet tea on a hot day. But you live with it, or I have anyway, and I know that the Fourth of July is a day for sparklers and BBQ, and the thrill of knowing I’m free to be me in a nation of others united in our individualism.

But this year is different.

The fact that the president has chosen to display tanks at the Lincoln Memorial, the place that was built as a monument to healing our post-Civil War national wounds, solidifies for me my sense that increasingly, the American flag is less about national pride than it is a marker of how “my patriotism trumps yours”: Either you will fly it more defiantly than ever, or you will be angrier than before when you see it flown in this martial manner.

Militarizing a day of patriotism is not inherently divisive, nor wrong. It just doesn’t feel American to me, not even as a Southerner who co-exists in two worlds of allegiances. And yet, even thirty years ago, I sensed that such a bland but happy display of unified patriotism as I witnessed in Canada was not possible in the United States, not then, and certainly not now.

That makes me wonder if in fact this day with tanks and fly-overs is not just the designs of a generalissimo-styled leader, but the inevitable end to years of “Us v. Them” displays, and that it was naive not to suspect it would progress to a battle of better-thans and division.

Perhaps we Americans do walk too easily with celebrity. Perhaps we are too quickly seduced into surrendering our facility for the mundane (more useful than we might think) in service to the visions of glory and greatness we attribute to the so-called rich and famous, rather than examine and challenge what our celebrities are actually getting us into.

If so, it’s us—all of us—not God, who need to come together and bless America.

Happy 4th of July.