A Fourth of July fireworks display lights up the sky beyond a hospital building, Friday, July 3, 2020, in downtown Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A Fourth of July fireworks display lights up the sky beyond a hospital building, Friday, July 3, 2020, in downtown Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In troubled times: Independence Day in a land of confusion

Buffeted by invisible forces and just plain worn out, the United States of America celebrates its 244th birthday

It was the worst of times. It was the weirdest of times.

It was a season of sickness and shouting, of defiance and tension, of industrial-strength falsehood and spin. It was a moment of ugliness and deep injustice — and perhaps, too, a moment when the chance for justice felt nearer than ever before.

On Independence Day, we Americans — if there is in fact a “we” in American life — celebrate the anniversary of a time when a lot of people, feeling really angry and scared, decided to do something about it that changed the world forever. This year, we mark that event in a year when a lot of people are feeling really angry and scared. Some of them are trying to do something about it, hoping it will change the world forever.

COVID-19 resurgent in 40 of 50 states. The death of George Floyd, the fight for racial justice, and the reactions against it. The fractious politics of masks. A national conversation — loud, enraged and anguished — about the place that a history blemished by ugliness should hold in the present. An uneven president embraced by millions and despised by millions. And superimposed over it all: a sure-to-be-chaotic election season that has only just begun.

Irritable, overstressed, buffeted by invisible forces and just plain worn out, the United States of America on its 244th birthday is a land of confusion.

“At this moment, we are a country profoundly at odds with our own history. We’re seething,” says historian Ted Widmer, author of “Lincoln on the Verge,” which chronicles the 16th president’s journey to his 1861 inauguration weeks before the Civil War began.

“There’s this feeling that there are multiple versions of a country that is really supposed to be one country,” Widmer says. “People are finding it hard to figure out which America is going to survive over the other one.”

This past week, the Pew Research Center found only 12% of Americans satisfied with the way things are going in their country — down from 31% in April, which was already a month into the coronavirus pandemic. The poll was conducted June 16-22 among 4,708 adults, most of them registered voters.

This country has always contained multiple versions of itself. That’s part of what’s held it together — “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one” — but also part of what’s driving today’s unraveling. One group’s story of America — a story of triumph and exceptionalism and always prevailing — is very different from that of others, which include narratives of abuse, subjugation and systemic slavery.

Many things make this particular Fourth of July different, though.

It comes after millions of Americans have been forced to marinate in their own juices for months, stuck at home, in some cases losing their jobs, being economically stressed, fearing a horrifying death, feeling both trapped and unable to access the “normal” life they remember.

“The ordinary flow of daily life — all of that has been disrupted. Every day looks more similar than it did before,” says Jennifer Talarico, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who researches the role of emotion in how people remember events.

The weirdness, she suspects, also reflects the new ways we have to share and amplify things at lightning speed: Could more sources of information be intensifying things? Could we be feeling more because we’re stuck inside with our screens for company?

Today, on a holiday that celebrates the dawn of the United States, recent weeks’ protests hint at an important question: How do you grill burgers and set off flag-colored fireworks but not engage with the actual racial history of the nation and its birth?

There are those who say: Put it aside for the day and just celebrate what the country means — American ideals of equality. But an increasing number of voices are insisting that the discussion has been put aside for far too long.

To Fred L. Johnson III, a U.S. historian at Hope College in Michigan who studies slavery, race and the Civil War, the notion of marking Independence Day without digging into what it means — including the compromises the founders made to appease the pro-slavery South — is ludicrous.

“The very things they were complaining that the British were doing to them, they were doing the same thing — oppression — to Black people early on,” he says.

“Being an American citizen is like having a relationship,” Johnson says. “If all you can do is accept the good parts of the relationship and can’t deal with the hard stuff, I question the sincerity of your relationship. We need to look at the warts, the dark spots and all.”

No one would question whether American life on this Independence Day — after the dawn of coronavirus, after the ascent of a nationwide movement, at the cusp of a volatile election — is different from the previous one. Many are dead. Many more are confused. Many are deeply angry at each other and at the system. Many are terrified. Many have simply had enough.

On the national birthday, bang and whimper are fighting it out as never before. The country, collectively, is a driver without a map.

“When you can’t make sense of what’s going on in the world, life feels pretty meaningless,” says Daryl Van Tongeren, co-author of “The Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises.”

“This holiday extols our way of life,” he says. “This is absolutely an emphasis of the exact American values which are under question, and are under question because they’re not holding up to reality. The curtain’s been pulled back. And people feel like a lot of this is not working anymore.”

That might explain a meme circulating among weary Americans in the past few days. “Dear July,” it says, “I don’t want any trouble from you. Just come in, sit down, don’t touch anything and keep your mouth shut.”

Ted Anthony, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

July 4

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Michele Babchuk with Premier John Horgan and Clerk of the Legislature Katy Ryan-Lloyd. (BC Legislature)
Babchuk sworn in to B.C.’s 42nd Legislature

Oath ceremony held with MLAs connecting through video

Over 6,000 customers were affected by the power outage that started on Nov. 17. (BC Hydro photo)
BC Hydro crews worked 16 hour days to turn the North Island’s power back on

BC Hydro runs one transmission line to Northern Vancouver Island so there was no backup line.

U’mista Cultural Centre is closed to the public until further notice, as of Nov. 23, 2020. (Zoe Ducklow photo)
U’mista closed until further notice due to new restrictions

North Island on high alert against COVID-19

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest day of pandemic with 13 deaths, 738 new COVID-19 cases

Number of people in hospital is nearing 300, while total cases near 30,000

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at Okanagan campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Court of Appeal for British Columbia in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. woman loses appeal to have second child by using late husband’s sperm

Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the removal of human reproductive material from a donor without consent

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Krista Macinnis displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
B.C. mom angry that students asked to list positive stories about residential schools

Daughter’s Grade 6 class asked to write down 5 positive stories or facts

B.C. projects targeting the restoration of sockeye salmon stocks in the Fraser and Columbia Watersheds will share in $10.9 million of federal funding to protect species at risk. (Kenny Regan photo)
13 projects protecting B.C. aquatic species at risk receive $11 million in federal funding

Salmon and marine mammals expected to benefit from ecosystem-based approach

Picture of two swans leaving the Cowichan estuary moments before one was shot out of the sky. (Submitted photo)
Petition to stop hunting in Cowichan estuary after swan shot

Hunters blame shooting on illegal poachers

Bob Higgins pulls the gate across on the elevator built inside his home. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Island man’s expertise earns international award with home-built elevator

Experience put to use in winning contest entry for furniture and home projects

Most Read