Your guts feel like they’re about to burst. You’re hungover. Your clothes smell like you’ve survived the battle of the Somme. The ordnance’s still smoldering husks litter the yard, and there’s ketchup in places ketchup should never be. These are the discomforts of July 5, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Those of you who spent the Fourth of July celebrating the 246th anniversary of America’s independence might have overindulged a bit, but with good reason. It’s a time to celebrate the miracle of self-government, the world’s oldest operating Constitution, and the infinitely complex continental republic that covenant preserves. It’s a day to take a break from the labors that accompany the responsibilities of citizenship and the agonies of our country’s imperfections. The Fourth is a day to admire the American experiment with revelry and carefree joy.
If you’re capable of that sort of compartmentalization, you should be grateful. Not everyone is comfortable making a cognitive divorce from the horrors of daily life, even for a few precious moments. Failing to dwell on America’s deficiencies and the distinctions that divide us, some believe, is an abdication of your responsibility to work toward erasing those blemishes. Even holidays—especially those that emphasize the nobility of the American mission—are an abrogation of your duty to be miserable in solidarity with those in misery. The Fourth of July is no exception.
“A lot of people probably don’t want to celebrate our nation right now, and we can’t blame them,” read a July 1 statement published in Orlando’s City News. “When there is so much division, hate, and unrest, why on earth would you want to have a party celebrating any of it?”
Orlando officials subsequently apologized on behalf of the city’s government for the “negative impact” their dismal verdict on the state of the nation might have had on the statement’s recipients. But if you steep yourself in a political culture that lacks the perspective to see past the present news cycle, much less to the 18th century, why wouldn’t you be melancholic? After all, everyone else around you seems to be.
“No fireworks, no parades, no grill, and definitely no blueberry-strawberry-whipped cream flag cake,” Petula Dvorak’s Washington Post op-ed began. “Plenty of American women are taking a knee on July Fourth this year. And who could blame us?” Dvorak cites celebrities who are treating the Fourth as a day of mourning—“wearing black and not celebrating.” Women, particularly those of minority extraction, are plagued by abuses, degradations, and, now, “forced motherhood.” Women, she contends, do most of the labor so that men can enjoy Independence Day. Not this year. “I let them fend for themselves and headed to a neighborhood food pantry for a future column,” Dvorak concludes.
Dvorak is not speaking only for herself. “I want the day to feel as normal as possible when everything around us is absolutely abnormal,” one unnamed woman told Yahoo News of her decision to spend America’s birthday laboring in the pursuit of national penance. There is no virtue in “celebrating a country that sees me as less of a citizen,” she added. The article cites several other activists who promised to engage in great displays of self-deprivation and highlights a campaign aimed at shaming others into voluntarily sacrificing fun. Hashtag “Cancel4thofJuly” advises the observant to avoid “festivities” or frivolous consumption and instead “attend local organized protests.” To judge by the scale of the protests around the country on Monday, a great many took this advice.
Of course, not everyone who is plagued by doubt about our national moral integrity planned to opt entirely out of the day’s celebrations. “It’s not about the cookout; it’s the conversations that need to be had,” Yahoo’s Erin Donnelly added. It’s fine to make an appearance in the neighbor’s backyard, so long as you spend your time lecturing your friends and loved ones and engaging in rituals like “donating or learning more about Indigenous causes” and “naming the land” on which you’re celebrating.
This doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but that’s the point. What looks like fanaticism to the uninitiated is to its practitioners the empirically observable signs of their seriousness. This self-flagellation may not accomplish much beyond making the flagellants and everyone in their orbits unhappy, but there is personal agency to be found in deliberately making yourself miserable. And if you feel like events are spiraling out of control, there is satisfaction in exercising agency.
And yet, this is not a purely solitary activity; it cannot be but a communal experience, because the community is the problem. You must be drafted into this joyless project. This phenomenon extends well beyond the impulse to ruin holidays. Indeed, you could (and I did) fill a book with examples of how this new political piety is applied to banal activities that cumulatively make life worth living. But the internal torment being imposed on you is not yours, and you are no less a serious person because you have the wisdom to understand that it’s okay to take a day off. America is forever a work in progress. We are all obliged to strive toward making this a more perfect Union. But that work can wait a few hours.