Here in Richmond, California, we have our official Independence Day fireworks on the 3rd of July, which I like. Not too many people, not as many drunks on the road as on the 4th. As it happens, I live on the harbor where the fireworks barge is anchored, so it as easy thing to stroll out onto the wide lawns of the park at 9 pm, and crowd-watch until the show starts.
Last night, my friend and I found a patch of grass amidst the multigenerational families who’d come out early to picnic and listen to a busy line-up of bands, country music following on blues following on rock classics and patriotic tunes. We could hear it all afternoon through the open windows, a joyful noise.
It’s hard to think of an experience more universally adored than fireworks. I love the way a thousand breaths align with the same cascade of pale fire, the same explosion of rainbows. Every mouth exclaims, “A-a-a-h!” and in that moment, you feel the possibility of peoplehood. More than the possibility, really: its momentary fulfillment, like the brief lifespan of the night-blooming Cereus.
Our fireworks display had a recorded soundtrack: “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” soon yielded to pop songs with patriotic references. Fourth or fifth in the queue was Bruce Springsteen’s anthem to American despair, “Born in the USA,” the rollicking electric version (watch the acoustic version at the end of this essay: same words, different feeling).
My friend and I smiled at each other as Bruce’s first lines rang out:
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up
Born in the U.S.A.
You see, our guess was that half the people in the crowd were not, in fact, born in the USA—which took nothing from their evident enjoyment of the show, of course. The most recent census says that just over 36 percent of Richmond residents speak a language other than English at home, and about 26 percent were born in another country. But Richmond is a city of diverse parts, and it appeared that few people had journeyed down from the mostly Anglo hillside neighborhoods to partake of the spectacle.
We’d also actually listened to the lyrics back in the day, which the fireworks’ music programmers clearly hadn’t; nor had Ronald Reagan when he tried to annex the song for his campaign in 1984, much to his subsequent embarrassment.
I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to Vietnam
To go and kill the yellow man
Born in the U.S.A.
While Bruce sang, a man decked out like a human Christmas tree picked his way through the crowd. There was a chill in the air; the compact, powerful Central American peddler wore a voluminous poncho and a round cap, giving him the silhouette of a small mountain. His hat brim was encircled by a sausage of colored light, blinking red, green, and blue. The man was festooned with plastic bags crammed with scepters and loops made of the same light-emitting material. He stopped every few yards to complete a transaction: you could see parents forking over small sums to satisfy their kids, who instantly began dancing and spinning with their new toys. As fireworks exploded overhead, the peddler left a luminous trail in his wake, something like the neon streaks you see speeding past city lights at night.
I am not really a patriotic person, but in that moment, I felt something. The evergreen enterprise of immigrants, filling every economic niche; the chance to better oneself that has attracted so many generations to these shores, including my own forbears; the easy jostle and companionable smiles of the dozens of diverse families huddling together against the wind; the cacophony of languages aligning like coherent light in the “A-a-a-h” following each special effect: here is who we can be, I thought. This improvisatory, convivial generosity is our best.
Our worst, of course, is its opposite, the way we enshrine privilege, obey authority, fall into the habit of disbelieving in our own social power, or even more basic, our shared responsibility for the actions of our own government.
Yesterday, both Frank Rich and Paul Krugman published unambiguous critiques of the Obama administration’s economic policies. The contrast between the public license to exploit described in each article and the democratic spirit that infused Richmond’s fireworks display could not be more stark.
Krugman focused on the almost unbelievable truth that the utterly failed and discredited nonsense called “trickle-down” economics seems once again to have Washington in its grip:
Watching the evolution of economic discussion in Washington over the past couple of years has been a disheartening experience. Month by month, the discourse has gotten more primitive; with stunning speed, the lessons of the 2008 financial crisis have been forgotten, and the very ideas that got us into the crisis—regulation is always bad, what’s good for the bankers is good for America, tax cuts are the universal elixir—have regained their hold.
Rich focused on the failure to call financial wrongdoers to account, or to institute the policies that would prevent future malefaction:
What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe. Time may heal most wounds, but not these. Chronic unemployment remains a constant, painful reminder of the havoc inflicted on the bust’s innocent victims.
I got a note today from my dear friend Arthur Waskow, founder of The Shalom Center, where I have the honor of serving as president. He has given me permission to share it with you:
For many many years, since 1961 at least, I have made it a spiritual practice on July 4 to reread the Declaration of Independence. In 1963, that rereading led me to my first arrest three days later, for seeking to integrate a whites-only amusement park in Baltimore, where I had grown up—an act that freed me in ways I did not then imagine. This afternoon, by “accident,” I tuned to HBO’s presentation of the TV series on “John Adams,” and “happened” onto precisely the episode in which the Continental Congress debates and in awe and trembling votes for Independence. I found myself in tears. Thanks be to God for their bravery, their eloquence, their insight, and their opening the door beyond themselves—doors into freedoms they did not yet dare to open—to so many generations who, even till now, face new forms of tyranny in power. “Generations” indeed: For now I have just read on FaceBook that my daughter has been reading it today to her children. I find myself in tears again. May we renew in our own lives, may our children and grandchildren renew in their own lives, the age-old dedication!
In the ordinary people I encountered in the park last night, I see everything that is needed for this renewal of democratic purpose. It’s only when I look at those we’ve entrusted with power that I begin to doubt. When did you last read the Declaration of Independence? If it’s been awhile, why not read it now, and pay attention to what it inspires in you?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,…
Maybe you’ll want to endorse the Declaration of Independence from Corporate Domination, for a start.