Occasionally, we read of “4th of July rhetoric.” When was the last time you heard 4th of July rhetoric?
A generation of Americans has grown up that has never seen a 4th of July parade or heard a 4th of July oration.
I can remember being in a small-town 4th of July parade at the age of nine. I rode in a horse-drawn wagon. I wore a white hat. The parade wasn’t so much patriotic as local. It celebrated horses and riding. My uncle owned a horse. That was Newhall, California, nearby where they used to film B-westerns, where the high school is named William S. Hart. The Korean War was still raging.
That was the last 4th of July parade I ever saw. I cannot recall ever hearing a 4th of July oration.
We know what those orations were supposed to be, at least according to Hollywood re-creations: a string of platitudes about the greatness of America. They were aimed at voters by local politicians. Nobody was supposed to be offended.
But do we really know about them? They had ceased to exist no later than the mid-twentieth century. Whatever they were intended to achieve, they no longer do.
WAS IT THE VIETNAM WAR?
Patriotism got a bad name during the Vietnam War. But I think the fading of patriotic orations had begun earlier. Korea was not a popular war. It is not celebrated in many movies. The few that did celebrate it are rarely seen on TV today. “The Bridges at Toko Ri” was a downer. “Retreat, Hell” was never big box-office. Neither was “The Steel Helmet,” a low-budget effort even for Lippert, which specialized in low-budget films. I can’t remember the names of any others, although I’m sure there were some. Books about the Korean war are not big-sellers.
Korea was a stalemate. It ended with a cease-fire, not a treaty. That cease-fire is still in effect. America has 50,000 troops in South Korea today. Why, no one knows.
Sometime between Korea and Vietnam, patriotism flagged. So did flags.
There was a reaction against the military after 1965. A recent PBS documentary on West Point pointed out that anti-Vietnam sentiment led to low morale in the military, which produced morale at West Point. The narrator is correct: what was a civilian policy failure was blamed on the military. The genius of the American system is reflected in civilian control over the military. Yet in the Vietnam War, contempt for the two Administrations’ policies in Vietnam produced contempt for the military.
The percentage of Vietnam vets who joined the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars fell sharply after Vietnam.
I am not sure when 4th of July orations began to disappear. There is no doubt in my mind that the practice ceased to be a familiar community event during the Vietnam War.
That something as universal as the 4th of July civic orations apparently faded away without anyone’s paying attention is itself a remarkable fact.
WHERE WAS THE SPEAKER’S AUDIENCE?
There are few archival collections of actual speeches delivered after the nineteenth century. It is as if urban life eroded the appeal of these celebrations. The larger that cities became, the less space there was for an oration. A parade is popular because it is a moving event. Viewers can line up along many blocks. But an oration is held in one place. What place? In a small town, maybe in a park or on the town square. But in Los Angeles. . . ?
There is a delightful PBS movie, “The Fourth of July,” starring a young Matt Dillon. The movie is a composite of several Jean Shepherd stories, just as “A Christmas Story” is. Shepherd was one of America’s great humorists, and unquestionably the most prolific. His nightly monologues on WOR (New York City) went on for years. Nightly, he created a fantasy world of Hohman, Indiana, circa 1939. It was a blue collar town of steel mills. In his published short stories, there are still faint traces of community participation. But in “The Fourth of July,” the day is devoted to a parade, a town picnic, and fireworks. There is no oration. Shepherd was a careful observer of the minutia of daily life. By the time he spun his stories, he did not include memories of the oration.
It has now disappeared.
This brings us face to face with a problem: there is almost no face to face any more. In churches, we have such interaction. In a small business, or in a subdivision of a large company, there is. But as far as civic ritual is concerned, there are very few events that are anything like face to face.
All over the world, cities are getting larger. The world’s population is becoming urban, and mega-urban. Community must be built or discovered outside of the existing civil order. The political chain of command is no longer reinforced by public celebrations. There are communities of interest, but no community.
Western political theory has yet to come to grips with this fact. The ritual of politics is now limited to voting. National party conventions are highly staged affairs. The sense of participation is missing for most of the people on the floor of the convention, and non-existent for viewers. TV networks resist devoting more than a perfunctory few hours to these events. One “West Wing” show was devoted to the White House’s threat of an anti- trust lawsuit to compel the TV networks to run all four nights of broadcasting. This was not far from the truth.
How does a nation maintain patriotism — emotional commitment to the national political tradition — apart from major celebrations? The Soviet Union had its May Day parade where the weapons rolled and the troops marched. But that world is gone. The few remaining Marxist military tyrannies still have parades, but Kim Il-Jong has never delivered a speech in public. (The same cannot be said of Castro, who will not stop talking.)
Television is not personal. Parades are growing fewer. Local orations are rarely delivered and never televised. There is no communal singing, other than the National anthem at baseball games. Where is the participation that Western political theorists from the Classical Greeks to the present have called for as a substitute for ecclesiastical participation, which is divisive? It no longer exists.
There is a scene in “It Happened One Night” (1934), where Clark Gable is riding in a bus. The bus is lighted inside, and everyone is singing. For years, I thought that scene was filler. My friend and master journalist Otto Scott, age 85, tells me that singing on Greyhound buses was common in those days, though with lights off. Strangers sang on buses. I cannot identify with such a world.
CELEBRATING DIVERSITY . . . OR NOTHING
We no longer celebrate national unity. That was what the 4th of July used to be about, but that aspect of it no longer exists. Watching fireworks is not a celebration. It is merely entertainment.
How will Americans hold together any sense of nationhood? We may think we can live without national rituals, but it is difficult for a society or group to maintain bonds of allegiance without ritual. The Irish wake, where a Democratic Party ward heeler arrived, was familiar to viewers of 1930’s movies. But “The Last Hurrah,” a book and later a fine Spencer Tracy movie, showed the demise of that world. Television has displaced the ward heeler.
A couple of years ago, I saw a TV documentary on South Carolina politicians who were planning to replace Strom Thurmond. They were very, very careful about not complaining too much about old Strom. One of them, a lawyer, only stylistically a Good Old Boy, said that Thurmond always called every widow in the state within hours of the funeral. He admitted that after his father died, he had told his mother that Thurmond would call her for political reasons. She dismissed the whole idea. Just then, the phone rang. Sure enough, it was Strom. She came back thrilled. “What could I say?” he said to the camera. Strom recently died at age 100. It is a safe bet to predict that widows in South Carolina will not be receiving condolence calls from either of their U.S. Senators. That world died with him. Given his age, what little remained of it he carried on. It was dying by the time he ran for President in 1948.
So, what will we celebrate, if we celebrate anything? Tomorrow, I will go to a church picnic. That is our big church event every year. There will be no orations, and surely no political orations. The separation of church and state is taken too seriously.
Tonight, I will go next door for fireworks put on by my neighbor, a Korean War vet, who belongs to the VFW. Every year, he buys fireworks for a neighborhood celebration. He puts on the 4th of July celebration. The former Air Force One mechanic (Truman through Carter) who lives down the hill puts on the Christmas party. But remember: I live in the sticks.
Anyone can put on a neighborhood party. Not many people do. There are few if any festival days remaining when someone in the neighborhood feels compelled to put on a party in the name of some higher cause or faith. The kind of Christmas celebration that we see in “A Christmas Carol” is missing in “A Christmas Story.”
There is Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. These are regional events. They do not celebrate the civic order.
May Day has pretty much died out in the United States, along with the labor unions that promoted it.
There may be Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the Southwest. There may be other ethnic festivals, such as Juneteenth in Texas. But I’m never invited. You probably aren’t, either.
So, by what civic celebrations, through what civic rituals, will national unity be extended to the next generation? This is a silly question, coming from someone who has no memory of such events. We have long since witnessed the steady erosion of emotional commitment to anything civic.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
I am a great fan of the 1942 movie, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which won Jimmy Cagney an Oscar. My father bought an album of George M. Cohan songs when I was about 12 years old, and I loved them all. I learned them all. I loved to sing “Over There” a decade before I learned that we had no business over there. (J. P. Morgan had business over there, but that’s another story.)
For my generation, our remembrance of Fourth of July was probably preserved more by Jimmy Cagney’s dancing than by Thomas Jefferson’s document. But I notice that fewer and fewer TV stations re-run the film. The patriotism of Cohan’s lyrics, the celebration of things Irish, and the glorious singability of his songs have no equivalent in modern America. I learned those songs through my non-Irish but highly patriotic father, but my sons are unfamiliar with Cohan or his music. I doubt that they even have fond memories of Jimmy Cagney. The television set was usually off in my home when they grew up.
So, unless one of the four TV stations I can receive should broadcast “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I will not be watching it this year. Now that I think of it, I have not watched it in many years. It used to be in my collection, but I can’t locate it. Maybe it’s time to buy a DVD.
How does a nation preserve public allegiance in a world in which public patriotic celebrations are a distant memory of old people? If self-government does not grow out of personal loyalty, then big government is far more likely to push people into line. There was a time of patriotism as a result of 9-11, but that has faded. I see fewer flags flying on cars. A negative — anti-terrorism — is not going to gain people’s long-term commitment to same degree that a positive will. What is that positive today? If red, white and blue have faded in our minds, the terror-alert colors of green, blue, yellow, orange, and red are not going to replace them.
My sense of the matter is that this country has lost its sense of national participation. It is no more possible for a government commission to revive this lost commitment through a national program than it is for a committee of linguists to persuade people to speak Esperanto as a second language. This nation’s Presidents have sent our troops over there by the hundreds of thousands, but those troops are not singing.
I doubt that there is a modern George M. Cohan in the wings ready to compose a rousing song titled “Over Here,” for use by our border patrol. Where is he, now that we need him?