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Da Fourtha July Robert Sheridan FawCawnahs July 2, 2000

The Fourth

As a kid on StatNisland growing up in FawCawnahs, my Cub Pack and Boy Scout Troop (26) met at the Moravian Church located on Victory Boulevard, at the end of my block, Hodges Place. Each of the holidays looked a lot different from the other when I was a kid in the ‘Fawties and 'Fifties.

On Halloween you dressed up in a costume, usually looking like a bum with burnt cork-black on your face, to go begging. Jack O'Lanterns and skeletons were the visual symbols. On Thanksgiving, you also went begging, but what you saw were cutouts of large turkeys. Christmas was wintry, with the usual Santa Claus symbols.

The Fourth of July, though, was different. There you had the annual union picnic, at some huge park or picnic ground. Everyone barbecued, played softball, and threw horseshoes, with three-legged races and such for the kids.

There was a barrel of R&H beer nearby for the men. The bitter taste of that ice-cold foamy beer, fresh from the keg, when you're ten years old, put an involuntary wry twist on your face that made the men laugh, especially the one who allowed you the taste. "I'll never drink this stuff when I grow up," you thought. The men seemed to like to drink it though. Strange to a ten-year-old. We liked Pepsi, Coke, or Nehi root beer, or tall orange sodas.

Visually the Fourth was marked by lots of flags. We'd also repeat what we'd done on Flag Day, putting crepe paper streamers of red, white, and blue on our bikes.

As a Cub, and later Boy, scout, we'd march in the Fourth of July parade as a group, from Meiers Corners to Bay Street, singing patriotic songs, like "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," because marching is boring. When you're ten or eleven, that was a long march.

I liked watching parades better than marching in them. I liked it when the bands marched by, led by the drum major with a pike or rifle he tossed around like it was made out of the balsa wood we made model planes with. Behind him were the drummers with their huge bass drums that made your heart resound from half a block away, getting louder and more intense the closer they got. The tunes were the great John Phillip Souza marches that I used to hear the Moravian church band practice in the old church basement, before the fire. They'd rehearse over-and-over "American Patrol," and "Stars and Stripes Forever," better known to us as "Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody's mother."

The church and its basement were next to the churchyard in which all the neighbor kids played football and climbed trees. Nowadays the churchyard that all the neighbor kids played in would be bulldozed for the new church school, or fenced off, "for insurance purposes," so you couldn't sue the church and wind up owning it.

I was raised in that churchyard and up its trees. I cut across it every day from second grade through eighth, on the way to PS 29.

We kids sat for hours up in the trees, arguing and discussing, my friend Billy McNelis and I, all summer long. You want someone to blame it on, blame it on McNelis. He never lost an argument with me. Nor did he ever win one. One time I had him. He'd contradicted himself, the sure sign you've lost the argument, whatever it is we were discussing so heatedly up the old sycamore tree.

"Admit, it you're wrong," I challenged.

"I am not," he replied, as usual.

"You are too, you just admitted it. What you just said is exactly opposite what you said a minute ago."


It's hard to argue away an argument from bullshit.

"Aw, you wouldn't admit you were wrong even if you knew you were wrong," I informed him.

"That's right!"

That's how you never lose an argument.

I've never forgotten that.

Never admit you're wrong even when you know you're wrong.

"That's my story and I'm sticking with it," is how another friend puts it, with tongue-in-cheek.

Never, under any circumstances, expect an Irish man, and God-forbid, an Irish woman, to admit the least bit of wrongness in any argument, for to do so is death, if you're Irish. That's why there'll never be peace in Northern Ireland, where the Irish, God-bless-‘em, have met the only people in the world with harder heads, the Northern Irish. Same stock, different brands. This is with full recognition given to the so-called Good Friday peace accords.

This is marching season over there. The Protestants, who beat the Catholics, commemorate their military victory to this day, some three hundred years later, at the Battle of the Boyne. Their symbol was Orange, the color of the Protestant king Billy from the Netherlands, brought in because no home-grown king would suffice. If you look at the Netherlands soccer team on TV when they play in a World Cup qualifying match, all you see is orange, the team, and national color.

What the Protestants do is to assemble to march, in their Unionist orders. They need the protection of the Crown (British troops, the same ones that put them there in Cromwell's day) in order to remain. The Crown would dearly love to be rid of the burden, but, having put them there, can't very well leave them to their fate. So we have this situation.

The marching season means marching your parade right through the Irish ghetto. This is thumbing your nose in the face of the neighbors, every year for the last three hundred years or so.

The neighbors, Irish Catholics, can be counted on not to like this very much.

It helps account for the horrifying toll of back and forth murders, assassinations, bombings, of sectarians on both sides, British draftees and enlistees, and political leaders up to and including the prime minister and members of the royal household. It accounts for British security forces, which may exceed in toughness Israeli security forces. If you ever want to see toughness personified, attend an address by an Israeli public official and take a look around you at the security guys. It's enough to make you wish you stayed home. They make the security detail surrounding our president look like nice guys, and these are the ones who set up the snipers on the roofs.

But we were talking about the Fourth of July, weren't we.

When the Protestants, in all their regalia, coat and tie, bowler hat, chained medallions around the neck, banners, placards, flags, and orange symbols, with marching band, march through the Irish, make that Catholic, neighborhoods, rubbing it in, something that happened three hundred years ago (don't hold me to the number of years, I'm not in a looking up mood, it was a lot), we have a word to describe this.

That word is "triumphalism."

Triumphalism is what distinguishes baseball from football.

More correctly, it is what distinguishes football from baseball.

In football, triumphalism is allowed. Rather, it can't be prevented.

When Tyrone rushes into the end zone with the football and does his little dance for about twenty seconds, making all the white people in the home stands want to draw a bead on him with an imaginary high powered rifle with scope, or retch, he's rubbing it in.

We don't like that.

But, try as we might, we can't stop it.

It's a cultural thing.

It's a black thing, and a white, as to the reaction, I guess.

Penalties, fines and suspensions mean little and haven't been able to stop what the NFL calls "celebrating."

The other team calls it "rubbing it in."

But the other team isn't in much of a position to do anything about it. They've just been scored upon. The best thing they can do is to score right back, but they can't always do that. So they try to nail the guy next chance they get, but they can't always do that either, so they suffer.

Suffering is bad enough when the other guy scores.

Having him rub salt in the wound is unforgivable, forever. It shows he has no class.

Baseball, by contrast, is a great deal classier.

You aim at his head and knock him down. Either that or he dies on the spot at home plate.

There is thus no triumphalism in baseball.

The baseball term for it is "showing the other guy up."

You can't understand baseball if you don't understand that you can't show the other guy up.

Hit a grand slam homer, you run the bases, eyes down, making not the slightest gesture to show that you just de-pantsed their pitcher. Otherwise you're apt to get mobbed at home plate by the opposing dugout. Or wait until your next at-bat. Better wear a helmet and body armor.

In baseball, there is no celebrating during the game. There is no celebration after game one or two of a three game series. The risk of retaliation is too high. You can celebrate after you win what used to be called the Pennant, or the World Series. No more at-bats.

You also watch your words when being interviewed by the press after the game. Say nothing about the opposing pitcher, or worse, the manager, or you will be knocked down next at-bat. You don't want that, it could be fatal. The fine for that is currently $10,000 and ejection from the game. Yet it happens. Honor. That's what at stake. Baseball has honor. Football doesn't. But that's another story.

I was talkin' about triumphalism.

Triumphalism is rubbing your symbols in the other guy's face. If there's nothing he can do about it, he's just screwed. He can only pray to get even, or begin plotting now.

It took Germany twenty years under Hitler to get even for Versailles. That was called World War Two and was more than symbolic. Triumphalism at Versailles planted the seeds for WWII.

This past week the State of South Carolina finally took down the flag of the Confederate States from atop the state capitol building. Black people saw it as Southern Cracker triumphalism and they couldn't swallow it any more. Equality had set in, more or less, and they had the clout to push away the bitter cup. They urged a boycott of the state and the convention business evaporated, costing South Carolina million$. So the flag departed. A short distance. But enough. For the time being.

Do you remember, back in about 1953-1954 (when I was a grade school crossing guard, and watched it daily) a lot of the kids started wearing Confederate hats and flags on their jackets? That's how long the Confederate flag has been flying over the statehouse in South Carolina.

Considering that South Carolina lost the Civil War, as we call it, in 1865, and didn't have that flag flying over their statehouse until sometime in the ‘Fifties before the Civil Rights Era, it lasted a long time. Too long. The Rednecks were practicing Triumphalism, rubbing the Blacks' nose in it, even though the South lost, bigtime.

The proponents of that flag have come have come up with an idea to preserve it. "It represents our Southern Heritage," they say. Their slave-holding heritage, I say. They are forming a political party, the Southern Party (Why not just call it the Redneck party and be done with it?). They want to set up a separatist movement, they say, like the French in Quebec.

Great. Let's keep an eye on these bastards, okay?

I was reading something the other day that stuck with me. Since the Fourth of July was approaching and some of us like to wave the flag we've lived under for all our lives, I went back and looked it up again.

"...a monarch, being both a person and a simple idea, is a stronger unifying force than the abstract nation with its elected rulers who are temporary. Hence the significance of the flag, the nation's one concrete symbol. When citizens burn it to make known their opinion and the law takes no notice, something must have happened to the nation-state."

The writer is Jacques Barzun, born in France in 1907, came to the U.S. in 1920. Graduated Columbia University and became a history professor, ever since. It has taken him, he says, all his life, to write the book I got that from. It's called From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. (Harper Collins, N.Y., 2000, p. 304. It's a delicious book, if you like to see the world explained, at least as to how we got to this juncture.

The U.S. Supreme Court, after due consideration and lots of briefing by proponents of both sides, takes a different view. Making known your opinion is a matter of free expression and free conscience, something guaranteed as part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That's the Constitution that brave men died face down in the mud to defend, as Ollie North put it during his televised Senate hearing. I never heard it better put, by a man who professed the belief that a good soldier salutes smartly and charges right up the hill, machine guns shooting down at you or no. Don't get me started on what else he professed.

I also came across the following, today. It's an article that appeared in the features section of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. It's by another history professor, this time Robert Jensen, at the University of Texas at Austen. History professors, I figure, oughta know something about something, because they're in a position to compare today with yesterday better than some of us who don't have the time. That way you can take an educated guess about tomorrow. Maybe. Here goes:

On bandstands around the country this Fourth of July, politicians will offer heartfelt homilies about "the greatest nation on Earth," the United States.

As flags wave in the background, we will tell ourselves a story of the great march of progress the United States has led around the world.

On the day we mark our independence from an old empire, we will talk about the fight for freedom, past and future.

The rhetoric is designed to make Americans feel good about America, but I've always felt uneasy with the Fourth, a holiday allegedly full of a reflective humility yet one that is reflexively self-congratulatory.

This year, the talk of the greatest of nations will ring more hollow to me than ever, because it's become impossible to ignore some painful truths about the United States. The humility is false. The claim of greatness is actually self-deception. The progress has not always been so progressive. The march often has been over the broken bodies of victims whose cries we refuse to hear. And the freedom we claim for ourselves we are too often reluctant to grant to others.

On this Fourth, I will be forced to face a conclusion I have long wanted to avoid: We are the empire, soon to be judged by history the way all empires have been judged, as cruel and self-aggrandizing. If we want to escape that judgment, we as citizens of the empire cannot wait for our leaders or the wealthy to lead us, for theirs is the path to power, not to greatness.

This Fourth of July, I believe that citizens of the United States have to commit the ultimate act of patriotism: We must stop being Americans.

By that I don't mean we must give up on the truly noble ideals associated with the United States. Nor do I mean we must turn our backs on the many accomplishments of the people of this country. Nor must we turn our backs on each other. Instead, we must tell the truth about what being an American has come to mean, and we must reshape who we are. We are too busy congratulating ourselves; we need to be questioning ourselves.

Such talk may sound strange, especially coming at a time of great triumphalism in the United States. Across the globe our military, political and economic power is respected or feared, or both. But two questions nag: Would a nation that is truly great want to hoard such power? And how do we use that power? The answers require honest self-reflection about the gap between the values we tell ourselves we hold and the values reflected in our actions, at home and abroad. Such honesty means realizing that unchallenged power and enormous privilege can block us from seeing ourselves and our role in the world clearly.

Jensen goes on to give some examples of arrogant attitudes he sees us exhibiting. At a political rally a sign claiming that the economic embargo on Iraq has killed a million civilians asked how many deaths it would take for the U.S. to abandon our failed policy. A man, an American, answered it: "I don't know – how about 2 million?" Jensen raises questions about the way we guzzle gas and supply Third World nations with the weapons they use to kill and control their minority populations seeking the same independence we once sought. He asks why there are so many homeless in a nation of such amazing plenty.

Jensen asks what it means to be an American in the age of the American empire. Do we dare to look in the mirror and tell ourselves the truth? And if we do, where do we go from there?

The politicians and the wealthy are not going to dismantle the empire on their own, he says. It is unlikely they will wake up one morning and suddenly discover a long-misplaced conscience. And even if they magically did, the institutions and systems in which they work would not go away. We should expect, he says, those with power in the powerful institutions to continue to concentrate even more power in fewer hands.

The rest of us, he continues, face the challenge of making "American" mean something more than "callousness, greed, smugness, orgiastic levels of consumption, disregard for the suffering of others and a willingness to kill to protect our privilege and power." That is what "American" means to the rest of the world, Jensen says. The start to correcting that is to stop repeating the "misleading story about our greatness and benevolence. We can stop being loyal citizens of the empire."

We can speak, we can organize, and we can act, he advocates, claiming this Fourth of July we can challenge the holiday's empty rhetoric.

When the politicians talk about being the greatest nation on Earth, we can stand up and question the arrogance of such a claim.

When they talk about the American commitment to peace, we can ask why the U.S. leads the world in weapons sales and "routinely conducts military operations outside international law."

When they talk about the booming economy, we can ask who benefits from the stock market and financial speculation, and who is left behind.

Most important, Jensen says, is when they tell us that being an American means being loyal to the empire, we can stand up and say,

"Enough – I will be an American no longer.

Then we can step into the long road to redefining ourselves.

We have to challenge our own privilege, question our own consumption, ask on whose backs our comfort is built. We have to realize that the things we have won have come with a price, that what we have taken has costs for others, now and for future generations. If we do that...we [may well] stop worrying about what it means to be an American and start concentrating on what it means to be a human being."


I don't expect to see much standing up and saluting of that around here. I'm not ready to resign my commission as a citizen of the U.S., or even StatNisland, myself.

I do think it important to think about whether the downside of what we do in the world can't be corrected.

Things seemed a lot simpler when I was a kid attending the parades during and after WWII, when the soldiers came home, and the adults threw coins into the huge American flag marched horizontally down the street to the sound of the music and the drums. You knew who won the war and were very glad of it.

There was no question then, that I ever heard, as to whether we were too arrogant or thoughtless, or causing harm by throwing our weight around.

But now we're grownups, and we're supposed to think about what we do. Maybe we do have to tone it down until we can't be criticized quite so harshly. Some of the criticism might be right.

Then what do we do?

Tomorrow, on the Fourth, Marie, Rick and I will get-together for a bike ride along the San Francisco Embarcadero. That's Spanish for waterfront. It used to be a working port. Lots of piers. Used to be home to lots of cargo and passenger ships. Back in the 'Thirties the stevedores struck. Bloodshed and bombings. Harry Bridges closed the piers repeatedly to get benefits for the working man in his union.
Nowadays the ships all unload their containers in Oakland. San Francisco has refitted the waterfront. Now we have Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 for the tourists. The Embarcadero Freeway, double-decker, was totalled in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake and has been taken down, replaced by an Esplanade with a forest of Canary Island Palm Trees. New streetcar tracks connect Market Street to Fisherman's Wharf, the better to keep the tourists and their dollars moving right through our economy. It's beautiful.

We'll bike to the new Giants stadium, then back to the Golden Gate. We'll take a look at the Pampanito, the WWII submarine on display. We'll go by the Jeremiah O'Brien, the last operational Liberty Ship in the world. We'll see the Fort Mason piers.

Fort Mason was the staging port for the U.S. in the Philippines in our first venture into the world of imperialism. Later those piers were the last dry land our soldiers set foot on before landing on places like Iwo Jima during the Pacific Island-hopping campaign preparatory to invading in Japan with an expected loss of a hundred-thousand American lives, or more.

They'll remind us of another day, another world.

We'll picnic with a load of fried chicken and potato salad afterwards.

Then we'll watch the fireworks from Crissy Field the pioneering field in aviation hereabouts, if you don't count Oakland and Alameda. Actually Crissy is gone now, replaced these last couple of years by the rehab job in what is now the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. Sort of like Great Kills West, only nicer. And colder water. Right next to the Golden Gate Bridge though, so you see lots of ship traffic and it's a beautiful sight to see.

You can sit there and think about yesterday, wonder about today, and imagine what the world will be like half a century from now.

If we're smart, we'll lead with our better values.

Otherwise the world might get a little tired of us.

I notice that Mexico had an election yesterday. Threw out the PRI for the first time in about 75 years. If Mexico can do something as brave as that, after so long, we can keep our eye on the ball as well.

Happy Fourth.


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