In our polarized moment, America’s national holiday has become fodder for contentious debates.
On the left, some think it’s unseemly to celebrate the Fourth of July when the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT Americans are under assault — while others question the commemoration of a founding they say enshrined slavery, genocide and white supremacy. On Twitter, Black activist and artist Bree Newsome wrote that “anyone happily waving American flags right now is either a gleeful white supremacist or is gleefully uninformed.”
In contrast, the right conspicuously waves the patriotic flag — but it also increasingly rejects American principles, and often seems to see modern-day America as one of the world’s villains.
The progressive critiques of the Fourth of July focus mainly on the reckoning with America’s racial history. Prominent academic and author Ibram X. Kendi shared on Twitter a graphic by another activist in which John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration of Independence being presented to the Continental Congress is altered with red blots over the faces of those who owned slaves. To its defenders, the graphic was a searing reminder that the founding call for liberty was tainted by enslavement of fellow humans. But its effect is to demonize and erase the founders.
Yet the narrative of the founding as racist and proslavery is dramatically oversimplified. Slavery — or serfdom, often only marginally less brutal — was a near-universal norm in history. The independence-seeking American colonists inherited slavery from the British Empire. Many strongly opposed it in theory (Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration included a paragraph denouncing the slave trade) but made shameful compromises with it for both personal and political interest.
Nonetheless, the Declaration’s principles of liberty and equal humanity galvanized anti-slavery sentiment both in America and in Europe — and led to the abolition of slavery in many American states. Kendi’s tweet referenced the great 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July.” But Douglass’ harsh critique of the holiday’s hypocrisy in a country where slavery still existed was followed by a passionate defense of the founders and of the Constitution as a “glorious liberty document” that provided the tools for slavery’s demise.
The American right has its own, more muted critique of the founding. “National conservatives” such as writer Patrick Deneen (whose best-known book is the 2018 bestseller “Why Liberalism Failed”) see a problem not just with liberalism in its political, left-of-center sense, but with the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment — and the founding. They see its individualism as corrosive and destructive to religion, morality, and community. In a recent viral video, right-wing pundit and Daily Wire commentator Michael Knowles only semi-facetiously suggested that we need to go back to the social conservatism of the 13th century, not the 1950s.
It's no wonder that a large portion of the right sees modern American liberalism, with its defense of secular culture, women’s rights and LGBT rights, as an exporter of degeneracy, not democracy. This explains much of the right-wing sympathy for Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, championed by such prominent figures as pundit Tucker Carlson.
Yet the majority of people in the United States, Republicans and Democrats alike, still embrace a basic American patriotism that sees American faults but also takes pride in our freedom and diversity. Let’s have louder voices speaking for those common-sense values.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.