Saturday, July 4, 2015

Pondering the Fourth, the Flag, and the Murfins

Note: This is adapted from posts on this day in 2007 and 2012.
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 fire up the grill.  The Old Man—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 heat up a big-ol’ can of pork and beans.
Daughter #1 Carolynne and Grandsons #1 Nick Bailey and #3 Randy Larsen have driven down from Wisconsin.  Daughter # 2 Heather Pearson, son-in-law Ken and Granddaughter Caiti and her beau ‎Erik Jendrzejczyk will be here.  Daughter #3 Maureen and her significant other Kevin Rotter will be here from up in Richmond.  We would love to see Grandson #2 Joe Gibson, but he has been AWOL at the last few family gatherings.  At least one family friend will also be here.  There used to be more kidscousins 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. Grandma Pat and Kathy’s Aunt Benita and Uncle Al are all gone now.  We have kind of got down to a core group, but you get the idea.
After days of pleasant, sunny but cool weather, things are expected to steam up.  But the Fourth has always been a sweat festival. 
We will eat.  We will watch the traffic go by on 176—sometimes someone will wave or honk and we will try to figure out if it is someone we know or just a friendly toot. 
We will 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 about thirty years in these parts.
Chances are you do something pretty similar yourself.

The flag flies on the Fourth at the Murfin Mannor--and every day Memorial Day through Thanksgiving.
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 a 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, and 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.

Howard Zinn in front of a banner of which we both approve

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 almost as well as did 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.

Reading the Declaration of Independence at the 2007 Crystal Lake Independence Day Parade.

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. 

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