The Washington Post

An America worth celebrating

Is America worth celebrating?

Okay, I’ll take the bait. A few people have passed on a tweet from comedian and actor Chris Rock, who celebrated the Fourth with this bit of wisdom: “Happy white peoples independence day. The slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks.”

It’s an argument familiar to those of us who attended an American university in the last 25 years: Ours is a history of unalloyed awfulness hardly worthy of exaltation.

So a few points before I return to racist flag-waving and un-American burger-eating: It’s undeniably the case that, in the short term, America’s liberation from its colonial masters was a largely meaningless event for those held in bondage. And while it’s also undeniable that it would be a depressing span of time before African Americans would experience the same measure of freedom as their former masters (one cannot, of course, use 1865 as a starting point), it’s astoundingly silly to think that the celebration of America’s founding is simply a celebration of the customs and mores contemporaneous to the revolution.

Indeed, there are few countries whose recent history isn’t sullied by some lamentable combination of bigotry, racism, imperialism and war. And perhaps it’s too obvious a point, but the country that evolved from that revolution has been rather generous to Rock. I would hope that Rock could find something to celebrate in a country that made him a very wealthy, influential man, that’s imperfect but nevertheless elected an African American commander in chief, and that has countless other unique achievements besides.

So a question for Rock: Should the shortcomings of America, the blemishes on our past — which are numerous, but acknowledged, investigated and debated — always outweigh its great achievements? Would he consider celebratory parades commemorating America’s role in World War II worthy of scorn because of segregation in the armed forces, the relocation of Japanese Americans, the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki (actually, some would doubtless say yes)? Rock would have a stronger point if current American school books, government officials and media whitewashed our past and refused to reckon with slavery’s legacy. But in my experience, the opposite is true. Both in high school and college, I was taught the Howard Zinn version of history, which goes well beyond confronting America’s problematic past to viewing it as a permanent feature of American democratic capitalism.

These are broad points, and there is plenty more one could say about the “America’s rocky history means America shouldn’t be celebrated” school of thought. So return to the barbeque and the beers, and we can debate the finer points of the founding of this country later, in the comments section below.


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