On July 4, I’m not proud to be an American
Every year on July 4, to much fanfare and revelry, the United States marks its 1776 independence from Britain.
The date is also an official holiday in Puerto Rico and other de facto US colonies. So much for “independence”.
I was born in the US in 1982, and, before definitively freeing myself from the “land of the free” in 2003, got to experience many a Fourth of July celebration. One year, when I was 12 or 13 and living in the Texas capital of Austin, my family and I attended a massive Independence Day gathering by the river, complete with deafening music and fireworks that permanently traumatised our dog Bounder.
Although this was more than 25 years ago, I can still recall being disproportionately moved by the Lee Greenwood song, God Bless the USA – a staple of July 4th festivities – even as Bounder convulsed beside me.
The song’s refrain begins: “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free” – and, indeed, as I stood there surrounded by my fellow Americans in a city named for a coloniser and slaveowner, I felt my heart swell with pride at the thought of this inexplicable freedom that, according to the tune, we somehow collectively enjoyed.
Anyway, that’s pretty much how cheap patriotism works.
In her acclaimed book Notes on a Foreign Country, journalist Suzy Hansen incidentally cites this very same Lee Greenwood anthem, which she and her classmates sang one day on the school bus in New Jersey during the US invasion of Iraq in 1990 – not to be confused with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq or the apocalyptic US sanctions that, as late American diplomat Madeleine Albright admitted, had killed some half a million Iraqi children as of 1996.
Hansen was 13 at the time, and recalls “becoming teary-eyed” on the bus as she “remembered the MTV video of the song” while singing it – with the recollection of visual stimuli of course only adding to the patriotic sensationalism of the moment. And because we Americans “at least” knew that we were “free”, Hansen writes, this meant that “everyone else was a chump, because they didn’t even have that obvious thing – whatever it was, it didn’t matter, it was the thing that we had, and no one else did, and we were proud and special”.
To be sure, Iraq is far from the only place on Earth that has long had to suffer the deadly repercussions of self-righteous American entitlement and ignorant nationalist fervour. As Mark Twain reportedly said: “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
Granted, the geographical lesson may not have gone according to divine plan, but it presumably matters little to the arms industry whether or not the general US population can locate on a map the countries the US is bombing or otherwise terrorising. Meanwhile, it certainly helps the imperial image when the US military slaughter of civilians abroad can – as in Iraq – be cast as a noble effort to spread that “special” freedom that we Americans “at least” know we possess.
But just how “free” are Americans, at the end of the day? Even as the country manages to spend trillions upon trillions of dollars on bellicose endeavours, Americans themselves are deprived of such basic rights as affordable healthcare, education and housing. Homelessness is a veritable epidemic in the US – and has reached a level not seen in drastically poorer countries.
In April, the New York Times quoted San Francisco emergency room doctor Maria Raven on the recent dreadful uptick in homeless deaths in America: “It’s like a wartime death toll in places where there is no war.”
Then again, maybe there is in fact a war – and one that America is waging on its own people.
Not only are Americans decidedly not “free” from poverty or homelessness, but the US also boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world – an arrangement that has traditionally filled the coffers of the private prison industry to the detriment of, well, society.
And following the June 24 Supreme Court ruling on abortion, women in the US can dispense with any illusion of freedom of control over their own bodies – especially poor women of colour, who do not have the relative socioeconomic freedom to pursue alternate options that override the reproductive fascism of the state.
Nor are children in the US free to go to school without having to worry about being mown down by a semi-automatic weapon or other lethal device. Recall the case of 11-year-old Miah Cerrillo, a survivor of the May 24 massacre of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. As CNN reported, Cerrillo “feared the gunman would come back for her so she smeared herself in her friend’s blood and played dead”.
I dare say that is not what freedom looks like.
This Fourth of July, I am not “proud to be an American” – and I never should have been.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.