Liberty just for me?

Unmasking the Fourth of July: whose independence are we celebrating?

4 minute read
Fireworks spark contemptuously now, and July 4 will hit differently this year—finally. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)
Fireworks spark contemptuously now, and July 4 will hit differently this year—finally. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

I was waiting outside a Philly bike shop to get some air in my tires when a fellow customer pulled up next to me. Growing impatient with the staff, he wasn’t wearing a mask and he wanted to talk.

After gushing about my bike and how good old-school Fuji frames are, he lamented that it was time for the city to reopen, and that COVID-19 was pretty much over. As July 4, 2020, approaches, he’s hardly the only one who’s anxious to return to pre-pandemic life. Being the good journalist that I try to be, I asked him objective questions to uncover why he felt that way, and he continued to make a case against quarantine until his bike was ready. It wasn’t a strong case at all (is there one?), but I said a polite goodbye as he rode off to carry on his day his way.

The interaction tinged the rest of my Saturday.

This is America

I breezed through the city, searching for reprieve from my studio apartment to meditate on myself and my place in the world—you know, the usual for my day off. I took to the Schuylkill River Trail and saw that the scene I wrote about more than a month ago hasn’t changed: large gatherings of people, many without masks, absorbing the early summer sun. At this point, I’m exhausted seeing such resistance to something as simple as a cloth over your face during a global pandemic.

But this is America, right? We’re on the cusp of Independence Day 2020, and we are clearly dead-set on celebrating just that: our independence. But at whose cost?

And what does the celebration look like today? Just like many other holidays: get together, cook the same food as last year, talk the same small talk, and mosey your way home heavy with the itis, full stomach churning with cheap alcohol. Not once have I experienced an Independence Day that actually opened up conversations about that summer 244 years ago.

Did you hear the news?

According to Valerie Strauss, who examines Joseph J. Ellis’s book Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence in the Washington Post, we don’t even know the true timeline of American independence. There are plenty of dates and events that get overlooked. The Continental Congress voted to declare independence on July 2, 1776. This came several weeks after John Adams declared independence on May 15, which was approved on May 12 (how does one even officially approve independence?).

The party didn’t pop off until July 8 in Philadelphia, and New York City didn’t catch wind until the fun in Philly was over the next day (like how you weren’t invited to that one party but saw your best friend hanging out with your friends because someone tagged them in a Facebook post?). Georgia was way late (as usual), not hearing the news until August 10. And while America was throwing party after party to mark the end of its “oppression,” its mom, Great Britain, didn’t get the memo until August 30. (It all sounds a lot like the story of Juneteenth.)

An opportunity

But who cares about the facts of independence, or the facts of our own health? Here we are, living in an America where we’re abandoning simple measures that flattened the coronavirus curve, just because we’re caught up in our self-righteous, summery sovereignty. We were doing so well, and for a moment I believed in us. There are other systems to blame here for sure: I’ve pointed out that global pandemics are the result of public policy failures. But that doesn’t mean our own responsibilities don’t matter. Falling out of practice on COVID-19 safety measures like wearing a mask and keeping your distance might fill you with cursory relief, but it has consequences for other people, leaving exponential and potentially irreversible effects.

America approved its own independence, although today, many of us would be hard-pressed to say exactly why we did it, or how. For almost 250 years, we’ve been partying without even really knowing what we’re celebrating. We continue to choose willful ignorance and toxic, uninformed pride, because Amurrrica!

Maybe instead of celebrating our personal independence on July 4, we can consider this day and the months following it (a time of ongoing and unprecedented crisis in our country) to be an opportunity to observe and practice responsibility and accountability for our actions, and how they impact the people who share the United States of America with us. Or we can just put burgers on the grill and pretend that everything is alright, like we’ve always done.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation