'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A Brief Note on July 4th Celebrations 

Here in Sacramento, it is usually pretty warm on the 4th. Not being a holiday sort myself, except to the extent that they are honored by my employer, I never really cared about July 4th one way or the other before I got married. It was just another good opportunity to go hiking in the East Bay hills or biking around in Yolo and Solano counties. But now, with a wife and son, the 4th provides a chance for my young son to enjoy music and fireworks.

But where? Keep in mind that one of the overriding considerations is to escape the heat of the Central Valley. Berkeley has an all day event with music at the marina, crowned with a fireworks show at the end (which looks great, I'm sure, unless the fog has arrived). Interestingly, the announcement for the event this year warned of a possible cancellation if there was unrest in Oakland in response to a verdict in the Joseph Mehserle criminal case, the prosecution of the BART cop who killed Oscar Grant. It might be necessary, according to the announcement, for the Berkeley police to assist the Oakland PD in suppressing rioting and vandalism. Given that the 4th was on a Sunday this year, and the courts are closed on the weekend, the warning seemed to serve little purpose except to frighten the populace.

If you hadn't guessed, July 4th in Berkeley is a multicultural, with blues, funk and Zydeco. By contrast, the alternative, in Nevada City, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is old fashioned Americana, with a parade in the early afternoon and music afterwards at the county fairgrounds. It is a celebration of manifest destiny accompanied by a soft focus white supremacy. After all, Nevada County is, according to the most recent census figures, over 94% white. Contingents of veterans start the parade, followed by tea party participants, with the Democratic Party contingents conspicuously towards the end. The local natural foods coop participates, along with the peaceniks, but Latinos, and any acknowledgement of immigration as being part of the historical narrative of the US, are absent. Liz Cheney would approve.

We ended up in Nevada City for these reasons: it is easier to travel there than Berkeley (which we visit much more frequently than the foothills, anyway), the smaller scale of the parade makes it more enjoyable (my son is only 3 years old, and I personally don't like large crowds) and my wife can't resist the nostalgia of a small town July 4th. So, away we went. My son loved the local bands and an old steam engine used at the nearby mines long ago. Meanwhile, I got to see some tea party people in the flesh, a group with an obvious "I've Got Mine" perspective. Interestingly, the militarism, while present, was low key. I got the impression that people there were getting more tired of Iraq and Afghanistan than they might otherwise admit. It lacked the erotic exhuberance encountered on PBS's A Capitol Fourth. For, in Nevada City, the emphasis remains the community, not the purported omnipotence of the US military.

Of course, like much of the country, Nevada City celebrates a past that never existed. Racial and class struggles are forgotten or diminished in the forging of a mythology that focuses upon the militia, community identity and mutual aid as the foundations of the republic. Oddly enough, by doing so, it integrates some historic anarchist themes in the service of a decentralized nativist vision that paradoxically facilitated the accumulation of enormous reserves of capital for industrial development and imperial expansion. But the Berkeley event may well have its own failings.

If one can rely upon the description of it, Berkeley is, in essence, celebrating the civil rights movement as one that acknowledged the real, multi-ethnic dimension of the American experience. July 4th comes across as an extension of the Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez holidays there. By doing so, Berkeley risks concealing the resegregation of American life, and the stigmatization of youth of color as an invariably criminal class. More subtlely, it fails to come to terms with the extent to which the multicultural metanarrative has served as an essential cultural foundation for the war on terror after being cross-pollinized by the American exceptionalism on display in Nevada City. Neither acknowledges the sinister transformation of the US into a country in which a substantial amount of its public expenditures are directed towards military operations, military research and the creation of surveillance technologies for the avowed purpose of global social control.

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