The Bastille and the Contract

July 14, 2019

There are many types of independence days, each a potent rallying point for the affirmation of nationhood. If, in the modern times, we sacrifice our attention instead of our blood, it is on independence days that the state comes collecting this tax. Since independence days bring so much collective energy to bear, they and their rituals—parades, fireworks, songs, etc.—assume outsize importance in communicating something of “national character.” In fact, they are one of the few times when this term is at all meaningful.

Trump’s Fourth of July party planning shows that his idea of our “national character” may be out of step with tradition and with the ideas of many in the US. For all that any display of nationalism has been intensively militarized since 9/11, the role all branches of service played in 2019’s festivities seemed to many overblown, almost camp.

I went with my parents to a rooftop in Alexandria, VA to watch the “flyover,” the aerial portion of the military parade. Each branch of service flew a different set of planes over the Mall and thus over Trump’s lectern. The event was delayed by half an hour due to rain and thunder, but finally a fellow viewer spotted a group of three planes—a stealth bomber and two fighter jet escorts—flying from east to west, from Capitol to Washington Monument, then over the Pentagon and back to Andrew’s Airforce Base.

The planes were difficult to see clearly but the silhouette of the bomber stood out in front of the clouds. It was shocking to see this vaunted haunter from the evening news, a childhood friend since Bill Clinton’s airstrikes on Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere, hovering here over my humid Tidewater. I think everyone was thinking something like this: “What if this thing does what it does but here? Would we hear the explosions from across the Potomac? Would we feel the shockwaves?” Less an object to marvel at in pride, it was a memento mori: this quiet city may not have seen war since 1812 (9/11?) but this is what it might look like.

The inspiration for this défilé, a dick-measuring contest with Emmanuel Macron, shows how much America has forgotten itself and from where the image of the nation derives. The French independence day, July 14, marks the storming of the Bastille as citizens ripped down this symbol of tyranny. The first stanza of the French national anthem is bloody: “To arms, citizens!/Form your battalions!/We march, we march/That impure blood/irrigates our furrows!” By contrast, the Fourth of July marks the signing of a contract. The Colonies had already been openly fighting the British for over a year. If America had decided to follow the French model, independence day would be celebrated on the anniversary of Lexington and Concord; the celebration of rational concord—the creation of a social contract—was intentionally deemed more significant by the early nationhood-builders.

So then, this ridiculous parade, a deliberate misunderstanding of American national character. If left to stand on its own, it could safely be dismissed as a vain and comically weak display. But elsewhere more important parts of society are playing along. The post-9/11 and post-Patriot Act flag worship and militarization of public space continue apace. The Macy’s fireworks show, despite most elements remaining a purely entertaining and celebratory extravaganza, insisted on a few closeups of soldiers in the audience, with the hosts making paeans to remember the troops. But the Fourth of July is not supposed to be about the troops, about the military, about American Empire; rather, it is supposed to celebrate coming together to passive-aggressively argue about terminology in order to frame the manifesto of a group of wealthy individuals. More idealistically, one could say that it is supposed to celebrate the power of trade to outmaneuver arms. Perhaps more idealistically, it is supposed to represent the rational balancing of force, through agreement, without the gratuitous brandishing of that force.

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