Why All the Fireworks on the Fourth?





7-2-12

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of "Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity" (Stanford, 2008).


Fireworks over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Credit: Wikipedia

I live in Colorado, where rainstorms don’t put out fires. Rainstorms start fires, at least in this parched endless summer of 2012. And the burning question in towns throughout the state, including my home town, is this: fireworks or no fireworks on the Fourth of July?

Common sense tells us to skip the pyrotechnics this year. So does half of most Coloradans’ hearts, the half that bleeds for the victims of the terrible fires we’ve already endured and the ones that are likely to come.

But there’s that other half of the heart -- call it the red, white, and blue half -- that says, “Yes, but, how can you have a Fourth of July without fireworks?”

For a good part of American history, the biggest Independence Day fireworks were verbal. Orations were the centerpiece of the public celebration, extolling the unique virtues of the republic born on July 4, 1776. But that tradition ended long ago.

In my own childhood, during the darkest days of the Cold War, the highlight of the Fourth in many towns was a great parade, featuring a massive display of the nation’s military might. I still recall making a bit of pocket change by wandering through the crowd selling little American flags, while tanks rolled down (and chewed up) the streets.

Now, it seems, the one ritual that remains everywhere to mark the Fourth is the fireworks display. Even the most conservative, anti-“big government” communities are happy to spend public funds to see their evening sky filled with dazzling bursts of colored lights. Why, when all the other rituals have faded, do the fireworks remain?

People around the world have, of course, been setting off fireworks for centuries to celebrate all sorts of things. I know perfectly well how Dr. Freud would have explained the universal appeal of those big bright bangs. I know, too, that Freud and many others in his wake have offered smart, stimulating theories of group behavior based on their psychological insights. But I hesitate to invoke them to answer questions about national political cultures. Theories developed to explain the individual mind become too speculative, too shaky, when applied to whole nations.

Anyway, our question is not why Americans like fireworks in general, but why they feel so strongly about seeing fireworks on Independence Day. What’s the connection? There are at least two common themes from our body of national myths that can point to an answer.

First, there’s the common assumption that America is unique. How, exactly? That’s sometimes debated among the public talking heads, and there will never be any consensus. But the question hardly matters to most of us. It’s enough to know that we are somehow (to use the traditional word) “exceptional.”

The myth of the Fourth tells us that nothing like America ever existed before. And then, suddenly, on one single day, it burst forth in a glorious explosion, fully formed -- a new nation under God.

There is a kind of link to God here, in the myth’s powerful biblical precedent. In a world of polytheists, the Bible would have us believe, the one true God chose one nation at one time to bring the truth of monotheism to the world. The Bible portrays Israelite monotheism springing up suddenly, without precedent, fully formed.

In fact scholars now agree that Judean monotheism was the product of a long, slow historical development. For centuries the people who created the Bible shared much of the religion and culture of the peoples around them.

Similarly, the myth of America as the one and only land of freedom, emerging suddenly on a single day, can hardly stand historical scrutiny. On the one hand, the political ideas of the colonists in 1776 were diverse, hotly debated, and all drawn largely from European sources. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that anything like a modern nation really existed on the eastern seaboard of North America on July 5, 1776, or for years thereafter. Nation-building was then, as now, a slow laborious process in a context of close interaction with other nations.

But much of American myth, like the Bible, is committed to an image of the one great nation being totally distinct from all others. So the nation must be depicted as emerging ex nihilo, like those fireworks that seem to come out of nowhere and suddenly fill the heavens with something glorious.

Again the question arises: What is that “something” that makes the U.S. “exceptional”? Here the parallel between the Bible and contemporary America quickly breaks down. In the biblical case, it’s clearly the value of monotheism. But ask a random group of fireworks-watchers in a random American town today what values they are celebrating. If you get any answers at all, they’ll be diverse and often contradictory. Mostly, I suspect, you’ll get confusion, puzzlement, and probably a lot of blank stares.

It is significant that the day is not often called “Independence Day” any more. It’s almost universally known simply as “the Fourth.” Independence, and all the other political values once analyzed as well as praised by the orators at such length, no longer seem to hold much interest for Fourth of July revelers. Political leaders may still pay lip service to the idea that we’re celebrating “the birthday of a new world” (as Thomas Paine put it), in which all men are free for the first time to pursue happiness. But is anybody really listening?

If you stretch far enough, you might make a kind of poetic, metaphorical link between fireworks and freedom. But having gone out to see the fireworks almost annually, in lots of different towns, for all my life, and having paid pretty close attention to the cultural milieu, I just don’t think that link is important, or even evident, amid all the oohs and aahs.

What is powerfully evident is the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air. “Powerfully” is the operative word here, because if there’s one American value inescapably on display as those fireworks explode, it is power.

The link between America and power can’t be dismissed as a conservative ideological preserve. In recent years prominent liberals have expressed it most eloquently. We are the world’s one “indispensable nation,” Madeline Albright said; the “hidden fist” needed to make the hidden hand of capitalism work, Thomas Friedman wrote.

Of course the fist is not so hidden in the villages of southeast Afghanistan. nor was it hidden, just a few years ago, in the cities of Iraq. But at home, since the embarrassing days of the Vietnam War, it has become rather unfashionable to roll tanks through the streets. Yet many Americans want some symbolic affirmation that we’re still Number One, still the preeminent global power. It’s not enough to sing about rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air. We want to see them, live and in color.

The idea of America as an exceptional, and exceptionally powerful, nation may be the most obvious symbolic meaning of the fireworks ritual.

But each year, when I eagerly go to watch the people as well as the pyrotechnics, I’m always struck by another side of the ritual. What other event brings together -- across the country -- so many different kinds of people, from every rung on the socioeconomic ladder, at the same time for the same shared experience?

In my town, the folks next to you are as likely to be chatting in Spanish as in English. In other towns other languages are equally common, no doubt. Kids in the newest upscale fashions quickly start playing with kids wearing fifth-generation hand-me-downs from Wal-Mart. Everyone is there, because everyone wants to see the fireworks. And a display of that magnitude is something even the richest can rarely afford to buy on their own.

“The diverse shall be no less diverse, but they shall flow and unite -- they unite now,” America’s singer, Walt Whitman, wrote. The wonderful unity-in-diversity that the fireworks evoke gets a lot less attention than it deserves. Maybe that’s because diversity is a mythic value rather more contentious than exceptionalism and power. But perhaps it’s the assembled crowd, more than the fireworks, that tells us what’s most impressively American about the last remaining great ritual of the Fourth of July.

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