Why I Will Not Be Celebrating the Fourth of July

In previous years, Independence Day was second only to Halloween as my favorite holiday. You’d show up to a park or a porch in your T-shirt and shorts, catch up with old pals casually overseeing a barbeque thronged with succulent chicken breasts slathered with promising sauce and glistening corn cobs that matched the searing hues of sunshine, and toss back a few beers while giddily tossing ground bloom flowers into the streets with a free-wheeling anarchy that was almost an instinctive homage to our founding firebrands. You’d set aside any stark political differences with casual unifying banter, knowing instinctively that the true quality bonding this nation was the invitational and subdued empathy of the American people. Very often you’d end up making out with a stranger, finding yourself in an unexpected summer romance and experiencing fireworks on the ground level that matched the bright showers exploding in the sky. The Fourth of July was the perfect midpoint to both summer and the year, allowing all to take stock in what had been accomplished and what was still possible. It was never an overtly jingoistic holiday — at least not for me or the people who I gathered with.

But I can’t find it within my moral core to party this year. Not while Trump blows $92 million on a fascist spectacle that is more befitting of a dictatorship rather than a democratic republic. This shameful and hopelessly corrupt administration would rather waste precious resources on empty jingoism, money that has been diverted from our cash-strapped national parks, that should be allocated to swiftly rectifying the traumatic conditions in concentration camps, perhaps addressing the lack of water and the indignity and the cramped space currently endured by the people who are needlessly criminalized there, much less punishing the cruelty of CBP animals who mock the deaths of undocumented immigrants when they’re not busy engaging in unacceptable racist rhetoric.

This is the kind of evil and unfathomable domestic policy that should cause anyone possessing even the tiniest sliver of a human heart to set aside their tongs and their big bags of fireworks to march loudly in the goddamned streets, vociferously denouncing the barbarism that our nation now practices without true representative resistance. But much like the epidemics of racism and gun massacres, we’ve grown accustomed to the comfort of looking the other way. We’re so seduced by the easy and enchanting susurrus of normalization, of pushing clear human abuses out of sight and out of mind to munch on our hamburgers, that the present administration only needs to keep ratcheting up the ghastly bar, counting on the fact that most Americans simply don’t or won’t give a shit.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she depicted a thriving city called Omelas united by a Festival of Summer. The citizens were blissfully happy, but there was one small cost for this revelry:

In a basement under the one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is near ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves for legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

America has become Omelas. The eerie parallels between the horrific conditions that Le Guin imagined and the realities that the children now suffering in the concentration camps are too nightmarishly exact. I remember this story being taught in high school and college. And there wasn’t a single student I recall who would attend the Festival of Summer knowing that this child existed. Today, I doubt very highly that any of these grown adults would say no to a festive holiday. How little we learn from the fiction that is meant to imbue us with empathy and compassion. But at least I can do my part by resisting a contradiction that should never have become fact in the first place.

It is clear that what now passes for the United States of America is a travesty of meanness and gleeful shame inflicted on the wanting and the impoverished, a sick cartoonish sideshow writ large into a heartless spectacle tacitly endorsed by both bloodthirsty Republicans who refuse to remonstrate against these inhumane conditions and the spineless Democratic arm led by the tepid and ineffectual Nancy Pelosi. While true progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren have been out in the field trying to get more information, genuinely caring about the plight of those who suffer, our disgraceful Speaker snoozes and roosts like a smug barnacle patiently awaiting her soy milk latte as people in need desperately approach her for drastic change. In a lengthy report from William T. Vollmann recently published in Harper’s (bless the man for his indefatigable diligence), the prolific writer simply talked to the immigrants, photographing the “black insignia[s] of humiliation” around their ankles and observing the salient and very human reasons why these innocents would wish to flee to America — namely, to escape violence and mayhem. (A detailed study by The Marshall Project earlier this year showed no impact on local crime from immigrants. Numerous other studies reveal inflated numbers from ICE and observe that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crime than the average American citizen.)

Like it or not, the immigrants who are mistreated and debased in the concentration camps are Americans. They have lives here and they are deserving, like any human being on this planet, of nobelesse oblige. So long as Americans are starved and denied sleep and bedecked with life-scarring trauma by callous ICE stooges who would sacrifice empathy for the glee of seeing them dead, I refuse to participate in a holiday that now represents a country united by blissful and complicit ignorance. Instead, I will spend the day reciting the Declaration of Independence to remind myself of just what this nation used to be, burning an American flag (a legal act of expressive resistance we thankfully still have) to protest our collective culpability, and thinking about how I can spend my time fighting the bastards with everything I have. These seem to me the only true duties of a principled patriot. I hope that you can find it within your heart to do something similar.


  1. The conditions on the border are a scandal. The best thing that I can say about the show downtown is that at least the president was impressed by Bastille Day, not May Day, so there won’t be ICBMs along with the tanks.

    However, your argument interests me on three lines.

    Would you have been happier celebrating Independence Day seventy-five years ago, when native born citizens were confined at places like Manzanar? Eighty-some years ago, when many would-be immigrants not admitted were sent back not to Central America and poverty but to Europe and death? One hundred and fifty years ago, when roughly a fifth of the US population was enslaved? Do you envision a millenium in which the state of justice in the US will allow you to celebrate?

    Second, the United States did not kidnap these persons and bring them across Mexico to put them behind barbed wire. You can argue that it has given them incentive to immigrate, through a winking at enforcement when it suits the business community, or through funding of wars some years ago. Either argument has its merits. Still: Any person confined by the US should be treated decently; but no child confined there came at the direct instance of anyone but a parent or a guardian, and no adult at any instance but his own.

    Third, Do something similar to burning a flag? To alienate the people I need to vote my way in 2020 to change this? If you had rather be right than president–broadly speaking, than to govern–there will always be someone who is willing to govern and worry later or not at all about governing. Frankly, if you wish to have an effect, you should be marching with the biggest flag you can find, and a “Justice for Immigrants” sandwich board. (It was Sam Brown, a leader of the Mobilization Against the [Vietnam] War”, later treasurer of Colorado, who said, “Never alienate people with style when you’re at risk of alienating them with substance.)

    And by the way, the powers of the Speaker of the House are considerable, but do not extend to causing radical change when the president and the majority of the Senate are of a different party.

  2. I did not intentionally mistype my email address in the previous comment. You will find the correct version attached to this one.

  3. One more try.

    1. Urging your readers to burn a flag is urging them to alienate the voters needed to effect change next year. You would do much better to march in your hometown parade with the largest flag you can find and a “Fair Treatment for Immigrants” sandwich sign.

    2. When would you have felt easy in your conscience celebrating Independence Day? 1943, when native born citizens were held at Manzanar? 1938, when the immigrants turned away returned not to Central America and poverty but to Europe a serious prospect of death? 1859, when a fifth of the population was held in slavery? Do you envision a condition in which you will be able to celebrate Independence Day? I should say that we celebrate a promise, more or less, often enough less, fulfilled.

    3. Those held by the US deserve decent treatment, and the current treatment is a scandal. But the US did not kidnap those held on the border and haul them across Mexico. Any child held there was brought at the instance of parents and guardians, and any adult at his or her own instance. I’m not sure what Omphelas has to do with this.

    4. The powers of a Speaker of the House are considerable. They do not extend to effecting radical change when the opposing party holds the presidency and the majority of the Senate.

  4. George: Thank you for your comments. While I certainly don’t gainsay our noxious history of imperialism, there was a reason why early Americans resisted bowing to the Commander in Chief during Washington’s days. The present spectacle — even though there are reports that the event will thankfully not be voluminously attended — is nothing less than authoritative fascism, a volte-face to our democratic principles, which include treating ANYONE in this nation — whether undocumented immigrants or the Japanese Americans who suffered in the World War II internment camps — with respect and dignity. I obviously do not possess the lifespan of Sir Galahad — so the point about slavery is moot, although I would like to think that I would be ashamed to be an American during that time and would side with Frederick Douglass, who famously challenged hypocrisy with the question, “What, to the American slave, is the Fourth of July?” If the camps are permanently closed and the people who are enslaved and mistreated there are free and the despicable man now serving as President is ousted, I could see myself celebrating Independence Day again. ICE has declared war not only on undocumented immigrants, but is even threatening the Dreamers. As far as I am concerned, the mistreatment of Americans amounts to the same moral objection. Or do you not feel that we should treat anyone within our borders with respect and dignity? The question of HOW someone got here is, in my view, moot. As for the weak-kneed Speaker, she has the power to initiate impeachment proceedings. When this was done with Nixon, you may recall that this was a minority position. But as the facts were exhumed through investigation, this quickly became a bipartisan issue. Rep. Justin Amash just left from the Republican Party. It is the duty of the present bloc to challenge more Republicans to do the right thing, which, in a more ideal world of justice and truth, would be divorced from partisanship altogether. I have no qualms whatsoever about exercising my First Amendment right to burn the American flag. Again, this should be a bipartisan issue, much as empathy should be.

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