Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Wings of Icarus: Reflection & Celebration

I had the best of intentions, I really did.

I was about to dive head-first into the deep end of the pool of 4th of July spirit; I'm talking the kind of patriotic, bare-assed jingoism that inspires local car dealership ads, the kind of moronic machismo that pervades middle America, trailer parks on the outskirts of Orlando and the high plains, with infectious, almost self-fulfilling happiness, the kind of thing that makes hot dogs, apple pie and baseball all second-tier items on a white America ladder to excess and happiness.

And I threw it all away.

I nearly sat down at the PC, hearing Kaia's measured breathing and the air conditioner and the sound-soother and the little pops emitting from a candle on my desk, and intended, with every good measure of my being, to put forth a mini-poll about what it means to me and to you, the reader, to be American. I was ready to bare my soul, simultaneously cracking wise and offering up a virtual fireworks display, in some sort of blog-based version of paper hats and New Year's Eve noisemakers. And yet from the long walk from my bedroom to the PC -- all thirteen steps -- it just disintegrated.

For those of you who read this column somewhat regularly -- and I hope each of you find therapy and long-term success curing whatever your psychological dysfunction(s) may be -- you know that my criticism, whether sarcastic or bombastic -- focuses on people, not this nation. Even when I offer up a smackdown on some imbeciles in Congress dicking around with film ratings or the disconcerting content of a Marilyn Manson album, I'm not decrying the American way of life or my ideological identity as an American.

Do I think many Americans, even those who deem themselves intelligent because they manage to e-mail Uncle Elmer in Bunghole Falls about Jethro's polyp-ridden colon, are less-than-intelligent? Yesirreebob. Do I worry about the absence of America's once-great manufacturing, and of our imaginary advantages in technology in weaponry, computers and innovation? Surely. Does it irritate me on several levels that I speak to "Rusty" in Iowa when I call Dell tech support, full-well knowing his real name is Vahishnara and he lives in a mud-hut somewhere in Bangladesh or Ankara? Yep.

I think the older we get -- and I'm not talking about once we surpass 80 years of age -- we begin to see the man behind the curtain of the socialization we endured in kindergarten and the early years of elementary school. Whether that haze lifts somewhere in, say, 11th Grade, or perhaps your second semester of college, it -- unless you are in an ROTC program and or stoned -- must lift. If it doesn't, you can expect a lifetime of pleasure buying Chevy trucks, Ford Tauruses and smile contentedly as you watch, with your wife and 2.4 children, each annual State of the Union address.

My intention isn't to, nor is this commentary aiming to, denigrate or belittle or ignore the significance of July 4th to this nation. But much as Martin Luther King day should be a day of notable significance to the black population of this nation -- even those who reside in states that resist celebrating same -- I think we go about the celebration of the 4th without noting the actual significance thereof. Sure, barbecues, parties and a day off from work are bonuses -- but this day should -- rather, must -- be more than a day to sleep late, socialize and inspire beer ads and car sales. There's -- somewhere within the lexicon of our nation -- something wrong when everyone associates July 4th with hot dogs and consuming other nutritionally-lacking foods but when it comes time to vote, we'd sooner cast our vote for the next American Idol than the President.

In past times, we had fewer distractions to dissuade us from our goals and our lives; one (shitty) television per household and fifteen stations on a barely-functioning transistor radio comprised our entertainment. Now children who can't even spell censorship are surfing the same Internet that spams any e-mail address known to man with larger penis offers, viagra and pyramid schemes and offers up the contents of a portable nuclear weapon. And we have 600 channels of shit -- to paraphrase Roger Waters -- on the TV to choose from, which is why we never really watch any one thing but always seem to find ourselves staring at the TV when it's on.

I suppose, in retrospect, this post wound up being what America -- the real America -- means to me. I think, on some level, this republic has evolved -- or devolved, depending on your take -- into superficiality, excess, leisure and brokering instead of production. And I think in some places, on some level, that is true. It's easier for us to enjoy the excess of this modern nation than to lament same. The glass is never half empty, and despite the addition of 9/11 to our collective heritage and national identity, this nation will continue on its path, whatever that may be. But the question is not so much as how it will all wind up, but how do we insure we instill the right values in the coming generations, rather than simply ratcheting up -- with excess, leisure, privilege and indulgence -- those which have brought us, as a nation, to this point?

It seems to me that we can either accept our roles as parents, guardians, citizens and members of this collective ethic of what it means to be American, or we can, first and foremost, identify ourselves as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and friends and neighbors. As far back as the days of the North and the South -- when secession was still a hotly-debated, but untested, concept -- these descriptors were how we as Americans saw ourselves. Except today, modern times and modern technology dictate that secession is no longer a geographic option but a financial and intellectual one.

I won't attempt to predict the future of this nation -- I'm not nearly that arrogant and even less intelligent. For that type of intellectual (but equally non-arrogant) analysis I rely mostly on Thomas Friedman in The New York Times -- and further, I'm far more interested -- rightfully so -- in my personal future with Kaia and our eventual offspring than I am with whether GM will and/or should go out of business and whether America's airline industry could be any worse than it already is.

But while everyone -- in this nation, anyway -- can celebrate this particular holiday with glee, I can't do so without at least taking a moment or three to step back and consider this nation, its place in the world, and our place as citizens thereof.

As of late, I've been watching as Israel pounds Gaza with everything it has in its arsenal to recover a soldier who was kidnapped less than a week ago. And both as a Jew and an American, and with an eye on the war in Iraq as well as the Ross Perot of the conflict, ie al-Qaeda, I've wondered why our identity is linked to whether we'll "win" said conflict rather than simply the fate of our personnel therein. I'm not weeping on my keyboard, but while acknowledging war is hell -- and I've watched "Baghdad ER" on HBO and can confirm that description despite never having wore kevlar in an LZ or a DMZ before -- I think our disassociation from the realities and the problems of the world is, on some level, troubling, but never moreso than on a holiday in which we should -- in theory -- acknowledge the conflicts we've endured as a nation and not simply the victory over the British.

I hope, with the above commentary, I haven't disenchanted, extinguished or shunted anyone who enjoys this holiday or the celebration thereof. I'm far from a party-pooper, and I've seen my share of close calls and movie-quality memories, both as a bystander and as a participant, in both sober and inebriated conditions. Today isn't Labor Day nor is it Veteran's Day, and thus this day shouldn't be regarded with the same sort of traditional, solemn observance that those days, at least in part, command. However, I do regard our increasing superficiality and our unwillingness to pave the future with the lessons of the past as troubling, and if my reminders of our origins somehow shits on the happiness of the day, my bad -- I throw myself on my sword here.

However, if anyone who's managed to read this entire post -- and I congratulate anyone who has (my apologies for its length) -- and somehow realizes that this holiday has some significance beyond the conclusion or commencement of 20% off sales and an extra $500 in benefits in auto financing, then I have -- for better or worse -- done my job.

That's the kind of work I don't mind doing on July 4th, and that's what it means to me. Feel free to comment or tell me I'm full of shit, or to do nothing at all.


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