What in 2020 Is the Fourth of July?

{NOTE: Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s 1852 address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and suspecting that even though Donald Trump thinks Douglass is still alive, it is unlikely that he will give an address in 2020, I thought I would jot down a few thoughts. To be clear, I make no pretense that my words can even hold a candle to those of Douglass.}

When he wrote A Tale of Two Cities in the 1850s, Charles Dickens may have been right that the era of the French Revolution was “the best of times” and the “worst of times.” Those words have been used far too often to describe other eras. But they very much apply to 2020, particularly in the United States.

No one — except, of course, Donald Trump — will argue with the idea that these are the worst of times. Just a few examples:

■ A pandemic when we have a “president” who is totally incompetent and uncaring and has allowed the health crisis to run wild in this country while it is being brought under control in nations with sensible, capable leaders.

■ An economic collapse that Trump’s complete incompetence has transformed from a COVID-19 Recession into a major Depression.

■ A “president’ preaching hatred, division, and white supremacy in ever-intensifying violent words, is enthusiastically supported by neo-Nazis, the Klan, and white nationalists, and in effect says that Black Lives don’t matter.

■ A “president” who sees Confederates — traitors who fought against the United States in order to continue to enslave other human beings — as heroes to be honored.

■ A “president” who seeks to protect statues of people who fought against America and for slavery, but not to protect living humans from a pandemic and wants to take away their health insurance.

■ A “president” who has so weakened the United States that our nation has become the “pitiful, helpless giant” of which Richard Nixon spoke.

■ A Constitutional Republic seriously endangered by a wannabe authoritarian with an Attorney General who uses the arm of government of which he is in charge as a Department of Injustice. Both of them see themselves as above the law and anyone who opposes them as beneath the law.

■ A man in the All-White House who consistently acts in the interests of Russia, even to the point of doing nothing when intelligence agencies report that Russia is paying bounties for the killing of American service members.

■ A “president” whose slogan is essentially that of the 1868 Democratic ticket: “This is a White Man’s Country — Let White Men Rule.”

When he ran in 2016, it was on the slogans “Make America Great Again” and “Take America Back.” It was clear that he wanted to take America back to a time before the changes of the 1960s, back to the Fifties, when the supremacy of white males was secure and women and minorities “knew their place.”

Now, though, it more and more appears that the Fifties to which he wants to return America is the 1850s.

Many more examples of how these are the worst of times could readily be offered, but this list is more than sufficient.


The present also holds the possibility of being the best of times. It is a moment of enormous hope and possibility — a time when the prospect of bringing the promise of America closer to reality may soon be within our grasp:

■ The revulsion that has come in reaction to Trump’s blatant misogyny — evident in the Women’s March, #MeToo, and the massive vote by and for women in 2018 — promises to bring a significantly greater degree of equality for women as we observe the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. It has already brought the Equal Rights Amendment to the requisite number of states for it to, at long last, put women’s equality in the Constitution — if we can get around the time limit placed in the legislation.

■ The brutal police murder of George Floyd, which distilled four centuries of American history into 8 minutes and 46 seconds, produced an almost spontaneous great awakening of a substantial majority of Americans to the massive mistreatment of Black people. Polls indicate a stunning shift in favor of Black Lives Matter and a push to right wrongs that have persisted throughout the country’s history.

■ Much as opinion on homosexuality and same-sex marriage changed to acceptance in an amazingly short period of time, the fact that the Confederacy was a rebellion by traitors against the United States whose “Lost Cause” was one not of “states’ rights,” but of “states’ wrongs” that deserved to lose has come to be accepted almost overnight.

■ The reverence for and monuments to those who fought for slavery and against the United States has evaporated among a substantial majority of Americans. Even in Mississippi, large majorities of legislators voted to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag. Republicans have joined with Democrats to take the names of traitors off U.S. military bases. Trump is, of course, on the other side, but most Americans now know it is the wrong side.

■ The pandemic has led most people (though there remain a large number of deniers) to comprehend that we are all in this together, and that we need a national health insurance system and a new social contract.

■ A political realignment seems to be underway, and if that happens it is likely to be long lasting, as demographics point toward the bringing together of different fractions of Americans into a whole — an “Us” without a “them.”

■ There is a real opportunity that, with all its horrors, 2020 may be a turning point in our history: a new beginning for a nation based on noble ideals that have been ignored in so many ways for so long.

Let us, then, rededicate ourselves on July Fourth in 2020 to making America in fact what it has always been in theory, as Langston Hughes wrote in 1935:

Let America be the dream that dreamers dreamed …

O, let America be America again —

The land that never has been yet —

And yet must be — the land where every man is free. …

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!



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