Bring on the Fireworks!
By Madeleine H. Burnside
This July, while stocking up on hot dogs, I’m thinking about the American Revolution more than ever. Men stepped up against a King they saw as a tyrant, knowing if they failed they would be executed as traitors. Women with loaded hunting rifles stood on the thresholds of their homes, shushing their children as British soldiers passed nearby. It was life and death every day, and everyone had to choose: Patriot or Loyalist? And to be undecided was wrong in another way, and potentially more dangerous. That there were colonists on both sides of the conflict made it personal, and a kind of civil war. The Patriots were under-equipped but had their desperation to motivate them. In contrast, the enemy was a distant government with a network of spies and domestic militia, regular armed forces, and highly trained mercenaries. No one could know how things would turn out.
The Revolution was about being taxed to support British interests without having a say in shaping the British agenda. If you lived in the Colonies, you couldn’t vote for any members of Parliament—a sort of extreme gerrymandering involving districts separated by an ocean. It was about equal opportunity—for white people with property anyway. George Washington very much wanted a commission in the British Army, but was denied for not being a “real” British citizen. Imagine if someone had waived that rule!
My current concern is that our contemporary resistance is too closely resembles the failed chaos of the Boston Tea Party. We’re still at that stage of acting out, much like the three-year period before the Declaration of Independence—an angry-mob phase, signified by a loose confederation of insufficient symbolic actions.
Of course, all that’s historically necessary. For a few months after the last election, most of us felt isolated—were there people beyond our closest circle who felt as disenfranchised as we did? A sea of pink hats said yes, and there were enough of us to be mighty.
I still try to parse the Supreme Court’s partial upholding of Trump’s immigration ban. Whether or not legally challenging this administration’s initiatives feels like losing at Jack-in-the-Box, the actions of focused resistance groups are organically necessary. But opposing a ban or an oil pipeline is a tactic, not a strategic agenda. The problem is not only that Trump has no blueprint beyond self-emolument and self-aggrandizement. The problem is not only that the Republican Party has held Congress hostage in its exclusionary fixation on repealing ACA in order to slash taxes for the rich. The problem is that we don’t have sufficient leadership or mobilization with which to respond.
Under Barack Obama, surely, we were about preserving the good and trying to move forward with civility. It was a lot to hope for, and even with a Republican Congress for most of his presidency, some of Obama’s vision came to pass. But that too was not an agenda.
Drawing from personal history, the difference between Liberals and Progressives is generational. Defining our peaceful movement then as “The Revolution,” people my age worked for big things like civil rights, gay rights, women’s liberation, and an end to war. Liberals, sometimes radicals, we affirmed America’s long tradition of civil disobedience and created aspirational values—not to mention great music, psychotropics, and organic granola! We assumed we could “be the change”—if everyone embodied our values the culture would shift. And it did—a bit.
And then it shifted the other way. All the people who didn’t march for peace, and many who did, changed their minds. A younger generation came to power ready to overthrow our now-older, complacent working selves. The new Tea Party registered its frustrations against taxes, entitlements, and the national debt. For its members, the culture had also strayed too far from values such as Christianity, heterosexuality, white European racial superiority, and patriotic nationalism—values they ascribed simplistically and often wrongly to America’s more discerning Founding Fathers. And they didn’t like having an African-American president—for eight years.
On the Left, we admire them only for how they organized. They started popping up, in small groups on the cusp of big money, though the libertarian Koch brothers got behind them quickly and for their own purposes. Conservatives share some of the Tea Party’s program, so the GOP has only to make small accommodations to embrace them. Tea Party members worked the ground hard to elect their candidates, but their mandate was never homogenous. They fought the Stimulus Act of 2009, and thereafter resisted everything in any form progressive. They’ve been successful, but decreasingly so, as they continue to work from a negative premise.
Breathe. Okay, if they get their way, Progressives are in trouble, values trampled and rights suppressed—even though the Tea Party is beginning to seem like a horse and buggy, forced to the side of the road by Trump’s pimpmobile.
The original Tea Party was a bunch of anti-monarchist white guys who dressed themselves incognito as Mohawks to avoid arrest, but also to identify as “original” Americans. The tea got wet on December 16, 1773. You didn’t learn this date in grade school because, while the action was symbolic, it was not effective. The activists had a following but no master plan. They too were working from a negative.
We need to celebrate the Fourth of July for what it’s called—Independence Day. Why? Because the Fourth honors a document that embodies our Revolution: the Declaration of Independence. It made real some of the most profound ideas of the Enlightenment, and established enduring constructs of secular humanism in civil law that have survived longer than any other attempt to do so in the modern era. Thomas Jefferson was charged with writing it. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams served as its editors. Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston worked with them. In those early days of July, the Second Continental Congress advised and consented to its letter and spirit.
It’s time to think like this again—to be Progressives not Liberals, to shine a light into the darkness of conservatism, to be fearless. The Founding Fathers had a plan. Some of it was operational and some of it was aspirational, but it was positive. They’ve obligated us to get it together, to be our best, to still believe we can make things right. What basics can we establish—can we rise to the call, can we express our hopes and ideas without sanctimony or ire, can we inspire clarity and good faith?
Bring on the fireworks!