Yves here. While I very much appreciate Lambert thinking hard about what the Fourth of July means in this post-Constitutional era, it might also be worth remembering the origins of this holiday. It came out of a corporate effort to stage “Americanization” events as a way to position immigrants (seen as a threat to American culture) as willing to adopt the native values and habits. “Americanization” celebrations were rebranded as “Independence Day” and cleverly made a Fourth of July holiday to tie it even more tightly to patriotism.
By Lambert Strether. Originally published at Corrente
I missed the parade. Which seems about right.
There was a Times series recently, which I didn’t manage to read — even though Jill Abramson really seems to have improved the paper, at least in non-policy areas, before she was axed — on “What does it mean to be an American?” Probably I avoided reading because I couldn’t answer the question. Or because the answer would have been too painful.
I remember back in the early 90s having a conversation with a (mainland) Chinese friend, and arguing for the unique strength of the American Constitutional system: The checks and balances system that the Constitution established reflected a wise understanding of human nature — “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” — and acted to prevent tyranny. No human is fit to exercise power over another, but at the same time, humans must exercise power over one another for the social contract to function, and so the issue becomes how to limit the damage done, on both sides of the power
equation inequality, to help ensure that the worst abuses (e.g., slavery and its after-effects, or the The Global Accords Governing Fair Use of Women) damp themselves out over generations. And since old-fashioned, Civics 101-style belief in the Constitution was what it meant, to me, to be an American, I don’t have an answer for the question the Times posed. It all reminds me of a Terry Pratchett joke in his wonderful The Truth, which every blogger should read:
[Dwarf:] “My grandfather used to think humans were sort of hairless bears. He doesn’t any more.”
[Human:] “What changed his mind?”
[Dwarf:] “I reckon it was the dying that did it.”
“[I]t was the dying that did it.” I believe the Constitutional order in the United States died, in my lifetime, at some point after the mid-70s, but in any case no later than Bush v. Gore. And now there I can’t think of one major social system that I would feel safe become involved in: Not the health care system, not the finance system, not the justice system, not the retirement system, not even the educational system (because I’d be an adjunct, and wages and working conditions are so horrific), and certainly not the employment system (credit check, pissing in cup). And, oh yeah, my every move on the Internet, where of necessity I spend hours a day doing my work, could be carefully monitored, and since it could be — given the unbridled power of our overlords, which I, for one, do not welcome — it is.
I’m aware, of course, that my now lost (trashed, violated) feeling of — unconscious expectation of — safety in large-scale social systems is a product of unearned privilege; I’m a very tall WASP male, and that’s why Thai security guards salute and wave me through checkpoints; I fit their template for somebody high up on their social scale; an imperial operative of some sort. The Apostle Paul — civis romanus sum — had the same sort of privilege, in his day. And privilege, at its root (privi + lege) means “private law,” and certainly not every American, probably not even most Americans, shared the expectations and feelings of safety that those of my class and my cultural markers did. However, millions of Americans did share them, and I would have thought the point was to extend that zone of freedom, not pollute, diminish, and destroy it. Boy, was I wrong.
I was at a meeting to fight yet another proposed dump the other day, and when you get up to speak, you have to introduce yourself and say where you’re from. When my turn came, I introduced myself not with the formula “I’m _____, from ____ Maine,” but with “I’m ____, and I drink from the Penobscot Watershed.” In other words, I defined myself not by my legal residence, my jurisdiction, but by my use of a Common Pool Resource.
So, “independence,” but not as this holiday defines the term, eh? I think Americans can still accomplish great things on the American continent. I think that radical reform can make large-scale systems work for Americans once again. But “it was the dying that did it.” This Fourth feels more like a funeral than a celebration, to me. And that’s a good thing. Time to honor the dead, bury them, mourn, make use of the legacy, and get on with “the augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life”. America doesn’t do that, right now. In fact, it does the opposite.
NOTE  To be fair, I’m involved in the power and fuel systems, where I feel safe, especially because I can always work out payment plans with them, since they’re public utilities. I’m also involved in the public and private transport systems, where I feel safe, although the roads up here are visibly deteriorating, even the Interstate. I’m also involved in the water system, and our local drinking water, it is becoming clear, is not safe. Finally, I’m involved in the food system, which if we generalized to “the ingestion system,” is so fantastically unsafe in its physical and biological effects that I don’t even know where to begin.