A Fourth of July fireworks display lights up the sky beyond a hospital building, Friday, July 3, 2020, in downtown Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A Fourth of July fireworks display lights up the sky beyond a hospital building, Friday, July 3, 2020, in downtown Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

In troubled times: Independence Day in a land of confusion

Buffeted by invisible forces and just plain worn out, the United States of America celebrates its 244th birthday

It was the worst of times. It was the weirdest of times.

It was a season of sickness and shouting, of defiance and tension, of industrial-strength falsehood and spin. It was a moment of ugliness and deep injustice — and perhaps, too, a moment when the chance for justice felt nearer than ever before.

On Independence Day, we Americans — if there is in fact a “we” in American life — celebrate the anniversary of a time when a lot of people, feeling really angry and scared, decided to do something about it that changed the world forever. This year, we mark that event in a year when a lot of people are feeling really angry and scared. Some of them are trying to do something about it, hoping it will change the world forever.

COVID-19 resurgent in 40 of 50 states. The death of George Floyd, the fight for racial justice, and the reactions against it. The fractious politics of masks. A national conversation — loud, enraged and anguished — about the place that a history blemished by ugliness should hold in the present. An uneven president embraced by millions and despised by millions. And superimposed over it all: a sure-to-be-chaotic election season that has only just begun.

Irritable, overstressed, buffeted by invisible forces and just plain worn out, the United States of America on its 244th birthday is a land of confusion.

“At this moment, we are a country profoundly at odds with our own history. We’re seething,” says historian Ted Widmer, author of “Lincoln on the Verge,” which chronicles the 16th president’s journey to his 1861 inauguration weeks before the Civil War began.

“There’s this feeling that there are multiple versions of a country that is really supposed to be one country,” Widmer says. “People are finding it hard to figure out which America is going to survive over the other one.”

This past week, the Pew Research Center found only 12% of Americans satisfied with the way things are going in their country — down from 31% in April, which was already a month into the coronavirus pandemic. The poll was conducted June 16-22 among 4,708 adults, most of them registered voters.

This country has always contained multiple versions of itself. That’s part of what’s held it together — “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one” — but also part of what’s driving today’s unraveling. One group’s story of America — a story of triumph and exceptionalism and always prevailing — is very different from that of others, which include narratives of abuse, subjugation and systemic slavery.

Many things make this particular Fourth of July different, though.

It comes after millions of Americans have been forced to marinate in their own juices for months, stuck at home, in some cases losing their jobs, being economically stressed, fearing a horrifying death, feeling both trapped and unable to access the “normal” life they remember.

“The ordinary flow of daily life — all of that has been disrupted. Every day looks more similar than it did before,” says Jennifer Talarico, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who researches the role of emotion in how people remember events.

The weirdness, she suspects, also reflects the new ways we have to share and amplify things at lightning speed: Could more sources of information be intensifying things? Could we be feeling more because we’re stuck inside with our screens for company?

Today, on a holiday that celebrates the dawn of the United States, recent weeks’ protests hint at an important question: How do you grill burgers and set off flag-colored fireworks but not engage with the actual racial history of the nation and its birth?

There are those who say: Put it aside for the day and just celebrate what the country means — American ideals of equality. But an increasing number of voices are insisting that the discussion has been put aside for far too long.

To Fred L. Johnson III, a U.S. historian at Hope College in Michigan who studies slavery, race and the Civil War, the notion of marking Independence Day without digging into what it means — including the compromises the founders made to appease the pro-slavery South — is ludicrous.

“The very things they were complaining that the British were doing to them, they were doing the same thing — oppression — to Black people early on,” he says.

“Being an American citizen is like having a relationship,” Johnson says. “If all you can do is accept the good parts of the relationship and can’t deal with the hard stuff, I question the sincerity of your relationship. We need to look at the warts, the dark spots and all.”

No one would question whether American life on this Independence Day — after the dawn of coronavirus, after the ascent of a nationwide movement, at the cusp of a volatile election — is different from the previous one. Many are dead. Many more are confused. Many are deeply angry at each other and at the system. Many are terrified. Many have simply had enough.

On the national birthday, bang and whimper are fighting it out as never before. The country, collectively, is a driver without a map.

“When you can’t make sense of what’s going on in the world, life feels pretty meaningless,” says Daryl Van Tongeren, co-author of “The Courage to Suffer: A New Clinical Framework for Life’s Greatest Crises.”

“This holiday extols our way of life,” he says. “This is absolutely an emphasis of the exact American values which are under question, and are under question because they’re not holding up to reality. The curtain’s been pulled back. And people feel like a lot of this is not working anymore.”

That might explain a meme circulating among weary Americans in the past few days. “Dear July,” it says, “I don’t want any trouble from you. Just come in, sit down, don’t touch anything and keep your mouth shut.”

Ted Anthony, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

July 4

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chelsey Moore’s character Chloe in the upcoming virtual reality game Altdeus: Beyond Chronos. Screengrab
Black Creek actress finds success in a virtual world

Chelsey Moore lends her voice to a new video game set for release in December

The Comox Valley Sports Centre re-opened in the summer. Photo supplied
Comox Valley Sports Centre Commission chair commends staff efforts in challenging year

Comox Valley Sports Centre Commission chair Daniel Arbour delivered a year-end report… Continue reading

The Lamplighters wants to end its lease with the village. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Briefs: Cumberland agrees to end hall lease with Lamplighters

Council aims to add more daytime meetings in 2021 for seniors

A rendering of the proposed window covering and sign for the business planned for downtown Cumberland. Image, Village of Cumberland report
Cumberland approves location change for cannabis permit

Site next door to the one planned seen as more financially feasible

People wearing face masks to help curb the spread of COVID-19 cross a street in downtown Vancouver, on Sunday, November 22, 2020. The use of masks is mandatory in indoor public and retail spaces in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. reports 17 COVID deaths, 1,933 new cases as hospitalizations surge over the weekend

There are 277 people in hospital, of whom 59 are in ICU or critical care

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Brenda Schroeder thought she was reading it wrong when she won $100,000 from a Season’s Greetings Scratch & Win. (Courtesy BCLC)
New home on the agenda after scratch ticket win in Saanich

Victoria woman set to share her $100,000 Season’s Greetings lottery win

Workers arrive at the Lynn Valley Care Centre seniors home, in North Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday, March 14, 2020. It was the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in a long-term care facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Rapid tests ‘not a panacea’ for care homes, Dr. Bonnie Henry says

B.C. lacks capacity for daily tests of thousands of workers

(Delta Police Department photo)
Cannabis edibles found in Halloween bag lead B.C. police to illegal lab

Delta police arrested a man and a woman while executing a warrant at a residential property Nov. 20

A woman being arrested at a Kelowna Value Village after refusing to wear a mask on Nov. 22.(@Jules50278750/Twitter)
VIDEO: Woman arrested for refusing to wear mask at Kelowna Value Village

RCMP claims the woman was uncooperative with officers, striking them a number of times and screaming

B.C. Liberal MLA Shirley Bond questions NDP government ministers in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 19, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Cabinet veteran Shirley Bond chosen interim leader of B.C. Liberals

28-member opposition prepares for December legislature session

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-19: What do rising positivity rates mean for B.C.? It’s not entirely clear

Coronavirus cases are on the rise but the province has not unveiled clear thresholds for further measures

Most Read