Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Fourth, the Flag, and the Murfins

Note: Adapted from a post on July 6, 2007.  This year with Independence Day on a Wednesday, wife Kathy away in Chicago, son-in-law Ken and Grandson #1 Nicholas getting ready to put on a fireworks show, and other family members scattered, we are delaying our get together until this Sunday.  But otherwise it will be the same.

At the Murfin estate, down by the funeral home out on Rt. 176 in Crystal Lake, Illinois, the little house on the corner—wave when you go by—we celebrate the Independence Day, in pretty typical manor.   

We set up some tables in the front yard—we don’t have a back yard, patio or deck—and fired up the grill.  Grandpa—that’s me—turns perfectly good ground beef patties into my festive traditional hockey pucks.  The brats (for non-Midwesterners, a fat, gently spiced sausage in every way superior to the lowly wiener and beloved by both Cheese Heads and Flatlanders) usually turn out better.  Of course I boil some sweet corn and specially heat up a big-ol’ can of pork and beans.

Daughter # 2, Heather, son-in-law Ken and Granddaughter Caiti and come over from across town  and Daughter #1 Carolynee  and Grandson #3 Randy drive down from Wisconsin.  This year Grandson #1 and his gal Val will hopefully bop over from their new digs in Loves Park.
Maureen, Daughter #3, is in residence and doesn’t have so far to travel.    Threatening clouds had hung low all morning, but the sun came out just as the meat started to sizzle.  It warmed up, but it was nothing like the steam baths of  past Independence Days.  In fact under the shade of the old box elder and maple trees and when the breeze was up, it was downright comfortable.

We eat, .We watch the traffic go by on 176—some times someone will wave or honk and we will try to figure out if it was someone we know or just a friendly toot.  

We generally also celebrate the mistress of the estate's birthday, which falls conveniently  on July 5.  It's a two-fer kind of celebration.

And that is just about it.  That’s the way the Murfins have celebrated the Fourth—and Memorial Day and Labor Day—for more than twenty years.  There used to be more kids—cousins and friends—mostly  grown now or are living far away—and a kiddy pool used to be set up for heat relief.  Various friends and more distant family might stop by some years.  We have kind of got down to a core group, but you get the idea. 

Chances are, you do something pretty similar yourself.

Now all of this excitement unfolds in front of a house with an American Flag on it.  Most years I put the flag out for Memorial Day and it stays up until Veterans Day—or if it hasn’t gone to shreds and the weather isn’t too miserable—until Thanksgiving. 

Some of my old Chicago friends—the few who have ventured way out here to the edge to the known universe—are  shocked that an old rebel like me, a Wobbly and a Draft resister, a street corner soap-boxer and habitual protestor, would drape his home in the symbol of oppression.

Howard Zinn summed up their point of view in a widely circulated essay:
On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed.
Is not nationalism—that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder—one  of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?
These ways of thinking—cultivated, nurtured, indoctrinated from childhood on—have been useful to those in power, and deadly for those out of power.

It is an argument he, and many others, have been making for a long time.  I understand it.  I really do.  I hold no truck with simple nationalism.  I know my history as well as Professor Zinn.  It is a short jump from jingoism to jackboots.  And I can sing the dark litany of massacre and oppression that has accompanied the twisted notions of American Exceptionalism through the years, as well as any human.

But oppression and blood lust are not just American phenomena.  We have just given it our own peculiar twist.  They are part and parcel of the human condition and exist everywhere.  To paraphrase a hymn beloved by peace folk:

My country’s streams run redder than the cardinal,
And soldiers  boots tread every hill and vale,
But other lands have bloody streams and carnage.
And soldier’s boots trod everywhere  the frail.  

 (adapted from This is My Song by Lloyd Stone)    

This is not an excuse.  All peoples must come to grips with the particular burdens of their history.  Humanity demands that we all atone for our sins and—much more importantly—strive to prevent their re-occurrence.

But the reason I fly the flag, the reason I could read the Declaration of Independence aloud one year protesting the McHenry County Peace Group being excluded from the local Independence Day parade with absolutely no intent of irony or condescension, is because there are elements of our common heritage worthy of celebration.  The words of the Declaration, whatever the personal failings of its slave-holding author, still challenge us to be better.

And those words stand not alone.  They stand in a great tradition of utterances and documents, official and insurrectionary, which mark what Abraham Lincoln once called, “the better angles of our nature.”  Tom Paine, James Madison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Fredrick Douglas, Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony, Emma Lazarus, Eugene V. Debs, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and  hundreds more  stand in this tradition.

It is this peculiarly American call for equality and justice, these impossibly lofty goals that lure us onward despite the disappointment and the contradictions, that I honor when I put out the flag.

Oh, and one more thing.  I REFUSE TO LET THE BASTARDS HAVE IT!         

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