Nationally relevant

Opinion – Don’t Lose Hope, America: A republic if you can keep it

I’m disturbed by many of the social media posts I see on July 4th denigrating the United States, saying Independence Day is not worth celebrating, displaying inverted flags as distress symbols, and in the worst cases saying that Americans feel alienated from and not a part of America. Providence arts organization AS220 hosted “FX4 Fest,” on July 2, toning down the title of the event otherwise advertised as “Fuck the Fourth,” so described on its web page: The United States “went on to consolidate wealth and power through genocide, slavery, theft, and cultural erasure, leaving wounds so deep that today, they threaten to rip its constituent myths to shreds. So you wanna get black out drunk? Do you need to wave tiny flags and pledge allegiance to a myth that perpetuates the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few? Fuck no.”

I get it, this country is far from perfect, and we as a nation just passed through a terrible confluence of bad circumstances no one alive previously experienced: the most intense racial protests since 1968, the worst economic downturn since 1933, and the worst public health emergency since 1918 that has so far killed more than 1.1 million. None of this seems cause for optimism.


Yet, despite all of its problems, I don’t feel the country is in danger of slipping away from me. I regard my US citizenship as akin to winning the lottery: much of the world is in disastrously bad shape, usually of its own making. Russia is run by an unprincipled oligarchy with the operating practices of an organized crime ring, committing war crimes against Ukraine. Venezuela is run by ideologues so irrationally committed to failed socialism that they refuse foreign aid, denying their own people food and medicine. North Korea is run by a ruthless narcissist whose only concern is staying in power, regardless of the cost to the people. Saudi Arabia is run by a crown prince who found it acceptable to send a team to murder a Washington Post journalist and cut up his body with a bone saw. China is run by an isolated elite seeking financial advancement at the expense of the fundamental values of civilized society, leading to efforts to crush any expression of dissent whether in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Hong Kong in 2020.

The path to improvement is not to give up on democracy as a goal and decide to chuck rule of law in favor of anarchy. Former slave Frederick Douglass excoriated the hypocrisy of celebration in one of his most famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” but he delivered it in 1852, years before the end of slavery in 1865. Douglass, who lived until 1895, clearly changed his view in 1881 when he compared the American Revolution and the Civil War: “It was a great thing to achieve American Independence when we numbered three millions, but it was a greater thing to save this country from dismemberment and ruin when it numbered thirty millions.” Douglass had no illusions, but he placed his faith in constitutional democracy, saying in 1867, “A man’s rights rest in three boxes: The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box.”

A few days after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, historian Timothy Snyder wrote a Facebook post that he would eventually expand to a short book, On Tyranny, and then a longer book, The Road to Unfreedom: “The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” Snyder consistently attacks “memory laws” that try to suppress teaching the truth of history: “Falsifying the past legitimates oppression in the present.”

While criticism of the United States is a centuries-old tradition that is explicitly recognized in its own Bill of Rights, there is a bright line between constructive efforts toward improvement and reform as opposed to nihilist “burn it all down” despair. Authoritarian fascism can only take root when people lose confidence in the good faith of their fellow citizens, fearing them as a threat, even evil or subhuman.

The United States has achieved a state of both freedom and prosperity unequaled, indeed unimaginable, in all history; as our own cultural tradition has observed: with great power comes great responsibility, and despite our pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way, some just want to watch the world burn.

With all of its faults, the United States often falls short of carrying out in practice its stated ideals, most notably that “all men are created equal,” but it preserves the mechanism, better than anywhere else in the world, to allow its people to pursue these goals, regardless of the deficiencies of elected leaders and politicians.