Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gratitude and the 4th of July [UPDATED]

I hope I made clear in my last post, I have a lot of reservations about some of what is celebrated on the 4th of July, and especially what is called the "American Revolution."  But if I'm not careful, too many of such posts, or expressing that view uninvited to people with few or no reservations about that little squabble, might make me one of those bullies called contrarians who are contrary for the sake of being contrarian, or, say, something like Christopher Hitchens, but without the writing ability.

So I'll say now that I am grateful that to be a U.S. citizen and to live in America, and at least some of that gratitude relates to the consequences of the very "revolution" I have qualms about.

I think you can say that many of the constitutional rights we now enjoy in the U.S. we wouldn't have to nearly the same degree as we do now if there had not been a war for independence.  There are a series of rights elucidated in the constitution, and expanded via interpretation, that I hope I shall never have to avail myself of, but I am glad that they're there.  I say this even though I think these are in some ways curbed,  unconscionably at that, and that they are in some ways being curbed more and more, through, for example, the national security state, the war on terror, and the war on drugs, and, at least according to some people, the ACA.

A large country like the U.S., under a more English-style or Canadian-style (or worse, a French-style) system of laws in which the constituencies served by the wars on terror and drugs and by the national security state held sway would have even worse violations of the liberties I enjoy and appreciate.  (Of course, when speaking of "English-style" and "Canadian-style" systems of law, I'm talking about varying shades of what is arguably an essentially similar system.)  Under another system, the government provided universal health care that I desire might be more likely, but that outcome is not a certain one, and even if it were certain, universal health care can be done badly and with sometimes very perverse results.

Sometimes, though, I'm ambivalent about what, exactly, I'm grateful for, and whether my gratefulness is more a result of circumstances not related to the supposed rights at all.

For example, I like my first amendment rights.  They're part of what gives me the security to blog about almost whatever I want to, with relatively narrow libel exceptions.  Even the recent revelations of NSA "spying" don't bother me at a personal level all that much, although they do disturb me when I think of the direction to which policy might be headed.

But in large part, my "freedom of speech" is as much a function of what vulgar academics like to call "modernity."  To put it into more human language:  I'm playing the numbers game and banking on other people's apathy.  I imagine that anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works, or anyone who is willing to pay money to someone with such basic knowledge, could probably find out my ISP address and, with little additional difficulty, could find out where I live and who I am.  I'm banking on the (probably very strong) possibility that nobody outside of specialists in 17th-century French theater really care what Pierre Corneille thinks.  And those specialists are so far removed from any trigger of government power (and are probably disproportionately so unfamiliar with that confangled new thing called "the interwebs") to prove any danger to me.

I also wonder how much of my being grateful for being an American has to do with my being wealthy.  To be clear, I'm no millionaire, and my person, quantifiable net worth is, well,, several thousands shy of "zero" due to student loans.  But I've never in my life been without food or clothing.  Nor have I ever really feared not knowing whether or when I would eat next.  I've been pretty fortunate in life and in the material incidents that can make life enjoyable.  To a large degree, that relative wealth can be attributed to the economic system made possible by the liberties this country secures.

But to another degree, it is made possible by other things.  To the extent that all Americans, or most Americans, or a non-trivial number of Americans, enjoy wealth simply by virtue of being American, that wealth possibly has as much to do with America's power and with accidents of history as it has something to do with the rights America tries to guarantee.  In this sense, my "gratitude" for the rights secured me might possibly be an instance of the arrogance of power, the same arrogance evinced by a healthy person who is proud that he or she "never gets a cold," as if one can control disease and good health so easily.

Also, it helps that I'm white, straight, and male.  I don't always like what the police do--and I think they have way too much power in certain venues--but when I see a cop, I don't really fear that he or she might stop me or look at me suspiciously because of the color of my skin.

My government doesn't deny me the right to marry the class of person (women) I'm most likely to marry, and when my wife and I got legally married about 5 weeks ago, we could afford to take certain things for granted:  the possibility that the judge might look askance at us and treat us coolly--a possibility that I assume exists when gay couples try to get civil unioned--was not at all anything we had to worry about.  Also, as a married straight couple, we can travel throughout the U.S., and probably most countries, with the assurance that whatever jurisdiction we travel in or move to, our marriage will be recognized and not questioned.

Also, while I might be just as subject to street violence as the next person, as a male, I don't have to deal with being the type of target in the way that women are often targeted.  The threat of rape is not something that is systematically leveled against men the same way that it is leveled against women, at least not in open society.  Added to that are the binders-full of male (and white, and straight) privileges I enjoy.  True, those privileges come at a certain cost (see what Noah Berlatsky recently wrote, for example, about how men suffer from anti-woman sexism).  But they come with their perks, too.

My gratitude is further tempered by the realization that under the right (or wrong) circumstances, I might opt for security over liberty in order to secure the enjoyment of that wealth that makes it so easy to say, "Fish yeah.....America!"  I would be wrong to do so.  But who's to say what I would do or think?  I live about two miles from the epicenter of one of the riots in Chicago in 1968.  Regardless of any tsk-tsk'ing I might have indulged in at the time, what would I have really thought if I were around to hear of Richard J. Daley's "shoot to kill" order on the evening news?

I don't know, but I do know that when I was 18 years old and at the time a self-identified conservative, I watched Patrick Buchanan's speech at the Republican convention on TV and inwardly felt a surge of pride when he described the national guard intervention to quell the L.A. riots of that spring:
Greater love than this hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.
My point is not to say that rioting never needs to be stopped.  But Mr. Buchanan in that speech bespeaks a certain idolatry of security (take back our culture), with its thinly veiled racist undertones, that at one time in my life I found appealing.  Who's to say I wouldn't succumb again, to again translate my privilege the armed force that backs it up?

The typical fourth of July post--and typical posts about how grateful one is to be an American--usually includes some acknowledgment of gratitude for the armed forces.  And yes, I am grateful that the U.S. has an army, and I am grateful that the U.S. army, in at least some situations in the past, have fought for causes the outcome of which was at least partially good and the necessity of which was in very large measure defensible.  I do question the extent to which having a military complex as vast and extensive as the United States's is actually conducive to liberty, and I do believe there is a serviceable possibility that the military just might revolt under the right (or wrong) circumstances, although, I assure you, it would be done in the name of "liberty."

But still and at least in some measure, I owe gratitude for the army and the sacrifices of its members, even those members who engaged that unjustified conflict in the 1770s.

So yes, I am grateful to be an American, to live in the U.S., and to be the beneficiary of others' sacrifices.  But I am uncertain of the extent to which that's the gratitude that comes from the accident of good birth and fortune, or the accident from something intrinsic to the ideological vision of those who are credited with founding this country.

UPDATE, 7-5-13:  I've changed some of the content of this post.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best and most honest blog posts that I have ever seen. I really appreciate your words!