Saturday, August 15, 2020

America on its 244th birthday: Dark skies, canceled parades, but also new hope

Jul 05. 2020
Black Lives Matter protesters gather around the Robert Lee statue in Richmond, July 1, 2020. Work crews removed the statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson in Richmond just hours earlier. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
Black Lives Matter protesters gather around the Robert Lee statue in Richmond, July 1, 2020. Work crews removed the statue of confederate general Stonewall Jackson in Richmond just hours earlier. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
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By The Washington Post · Marc Fisher · NATIONAL

As statues tumble and a frightening virus spreads through the land, far fewer splashes of color will burst onto the night skies across America on the Fourth of July. Instead of parades and picnics, the nation's 244th birthday will be a muted celebration by people who are frustrated and strained, yet intriguingly, persistently hopeful about the future.

Protesters holding an American flag upside-down march in front of Minnesota Governor's Residence on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Saint Paul, Minn. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

A triple whammy of deadly disease, wholesale economic paralysis and a searing reckoning with racial inequality has largely canceled the nation's birthday bash. But despite depression-level unemployment and pervasive sadness, polling and interviews across the country reveal an enduring - even renewed - reservoir of optimism, a sense that despite the coronavirus and perhaps as a result of protests in big cities and small towns alike, the United States can still right itself.

Months of quarantine and the continuing anxiety of life under the threat of an uncontained virus has shrunk social circles, leaving many people lonely or bored. In Clear Lake, Iowa, where there would normally be a parade, a carnival and a grand fireworks display over the water, Rachel Wumkes will instead spend the day in her in-laws' pontoon with her husband and their five children.

"I feel discombobulated right now because we should be doing everything and instead we're just kind of doing nothing," said Wumkes, who works for the town's chamber of commerce. "There's so many scary things right now. We're all kind of melancholy this year, trying to put a smile on our faces."

Americans' pride in their country has dropped this year, especially among Republicans, according to the Gallup Poll. National pride declined to its lowest point in two decades of polling, as the portion of Americans saying they are "extremely" or "very proud" of their country fell from 92 percent in 2002, months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to 63 percent last month. The number was far lower for nonwhites: 24 percent.

On the Fourth, Chris Chappelear will leave Omaha, where the big parades and fireworks displays were scratched, and head over to Arlington, Neb., his grandparents' tiny hometown 35 miles away, where the rocket's red glare will give proof through the night that the flag is still there.

Despite all the country has gone through this year, he believes there remains something to celebrate.

"Everything feels really strained right now," said Chappelear, who is chairman of the Nebraska Federation of Young Republicans. "But people are trying to make it work, and I think there will be meaningful change. I like the national conversation that the protests started. With social media, too many people only see what their own people think. But as a millennial, I think changing the guard, with new, fresh blood in leadership, would go a long way toward cooling down tempers."

Crowds dance and enjoy live music on 16th Street amidst a joyous atmosphere during DC's Chocolate City Experience around Black Lives Matter Plaza, June 27, 2020, in Washington. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Evelyn Hockstein

In the wake of nationwide protests against police violence, Americans have become somewhat more optimistic about the country's future, though a plurality still say life will be worse for people in the next generations, according to a new Pew Research poll. Though 71 percent of Americans said they feel angry about the state of the country - and 66 percent are fearful - the survey found an uptick in optimism since last fall.

Overall, 25 percent of those polled said life will get better for Americans; among whites, that number held steady at 22 percent, but among blacks, the optimism number jumped from 17 percent last fall to 33 percent this month.

On most Fourths, Greg Carr makes his way to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to hear the annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. He always carries with him the text of Frederick Douglass's 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"

There'll be no mass gathering this year, but Carr, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard University in Washington, will nonetheless read the speech, which affirms Douglass's admiration for the Founding Fathers' "great principles of political freedom and of natural justice," but concludes that "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

This year, Carr feels an unaccustomed "optimism coming from black folks who see the terms of the American myth being renegotiated in the streets." He said the coronavirus epidemic "has laid bare the structural inequalities in this country, and the deaths from the virus triggered this general strike."

The protests, Carr said, have been expressions not only of anger and frustration, but also of joy: "There's dancing, there's celebration - they're celebrating victories that are about America and about human rights and the feeling that 'I feel better outside than I did being stuck inside the house.' "

Carr will spend the day reading the speech and attending Zoom conferences critiquing the Fourth of July. His is not a celebration of America - "This is still the white man's country," he said - but rather a celebration that Americans are asserting their rights.

"What black people want is to be left alone," Carr said. "Let us live."

Figuring out exactly what the Fourth celebrates has been the work of nearly 2½ centuries, and especially in traumatic times, that effort can seem anything but unified.

In 1968, the Fourth arrived in a moment of deep national division. Riots burned through American cities, the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy remained fresh wounds to the national psyche, and 36 percent of Americans - including 48 percent of blacks - told pollsters that the United States was a "sick society."

In that traumatic year, the Fourth featured demonstrations on the Mall highlighting "the plight of the poor," and in Philadelphia, protesters opposing the U.S. involvement in Vietnam chanting, "End the war now!"

But in most American towns, the Fourth unfolded as it always had, a cheerful mélange of parades and fireworks, baseball games, fried chicken dinners and flags aflutter in a humid breeze. A Gallup Poll that summer found that most Americans did not consider their country "sick," arguing that a small number of people were responsible for violence on the streets and that the country was no worse off than it had been in other eras.

That debate has ebbed and flowed for half a century.

"This year's conflicts are the clash of two different, incompatible visions of America," said John Fonte, a historian who is director of the Center for American Common Culture at the conservative Hudson Institute. "It's systemic justice against systemic racism, the America of the American Revolution and the Constitution - the idea that we've had an advance of rights for more than two centuries - against the view that America was flawed from the beginning by slavery.

"We are reaching the climax of that debate, and it appears this year that we are moving away from the vision of an American legacy that needs to be transmitted, toward that vision of America as a country that needs to be radically transformed."

Fonte has watched as statues have fallen and protests have blossomed, not only against Confederate generals and soldiers who were traitors to their country, but also against George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant.

The historian plans to celebrate the Fourth, but he has little expectation that Americans will reach any consensus on who we are and what we stand for. Fonte called the rejection of some of the nation's most honored figures "overreach."

"Most people in most countries want to love their country," Fonte said. "They don't want to think this is a terrible nation that has done terrible things for hundreds of years. But we're going to have to choose. Something has to give."

This year, many Americans seem to be leaning toward the protesters' arguments, with large majorities of whites and nonwhites alike concluding that the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody reflected broad problems in how police treat black Americans, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted in June.

That consensus gives Chappelear, the Nebraska Young Republican, hope that "we'll come through this crisis - battered and bruised and bloody, but we'll come through it. The country is still divided, but I look at my generation and the attitudes are different: I like the idea of Black Lives Matter, even if not the organization that runs it. With climate change and gay rights, there's a much larger acceptance among young conservatives, even here in Nebraska, than there is for older generations."

But deep divisions remain, and the painful and largely unsuccessful struggle to limit the spread of the coronavirus has reflected rifts that stretch back generations. The debate over whether governments should require people to wear masks, for example, is a classic American faceoff between individual liberty and common good.

"It's just a punch in the gut to see people around the world responding to the virus and we're sitting here not doing what we know we could do," said Spence Spencer, who has run the Fourth of July parade in the District's Palisades neighborhood since 2002. This year's parade was scrapped, replaced with a virtual parade online.

"We are broken but unbowed," said Spencer, a former State Department official who runs a nonprofit organization that focuses on enhancing the rule of law in Iraq and other conflict zones. "Our country has taken so much on the chin this year, on so many levels."

Spencer sees this spring's protests as "a cause for hope, a reassertion that the American tradition of getting people to act on a matter of social justice is alive and well." But the country's handling of the virus is a less hopeful story, he said: "Right now, that's a major failing. But I know we can turn a corner. That's a core belief."

Many Americans blame themselves, or at least each other, for the failure to restrain the spread of the virus as some other countries have.

More than twice as many people say the American public is doing a "bad job" dealing with the outbreak as say the public is doing a good job, according to a Monmouth University poll. Americans give their fellow citizens a worse grade than they give President Trump; 59 percent said the public is doing a "bad job" battling the virus, whereas 54 percent said Trump is handling the outbreak poorly.

Wumkes, the Iowa civic booster, compared the country's predicament to a trying chapter of her own life. Three years ago, she lost her husband to cancer. She despaired about her future, alone with two small children. Now, remarried and in a blended family with her new husband's three kids, her children ask, "Why can't we go to the movies?" and "Why are we always at home?" But Wumkes sees a light she'd have found hard to imagine a few years ago.

"Life is not all rainbows and unicorns," she said. "I pulled through that time, and we as a country can pull through, too. Maybe that's a small-town Iowa fantasy, but I'm hopeful we can persevere."

Despite the nationwide surge of worry and stress since the epidemic hit hard in March, more than 7 in 10 Americans told the Gallup Poll in mid-June that they experienced happiness and enjoyment through much of their day, a bump up in positive feelings since late March.

There's good feeling aplenty in Medora, in North Dakota's Badlands, this weekend. The parade is on. The fireworks, too. More than 128,000 Americans have died of covid-19, and 2.7 million nationwide have been diagnosed with the virus that causes the disease, but in this rural town, the 128 residents, augmented in summer by thousands of tourists visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, feel distant enough from the brunt of the virus to charge ahead with their celebrations.

Some people will wear masks, and Douglas Ellison keeps hand sanitizer on the counter at the bookstore and inn he runs. Whether people use it is up to them. "I see it as an individual choice," he said.

His Fourth will be an optimistic one. His inn is mostly full of visitors, and his vision of America remains mostly unblemished by this year's troubles.

"Out here, the tensions are not as strong as what we see on television," said Ellison, who also is a former mayor of Medora. "From what I watch, I see almost a mass hysteria, with people pulling down statues left and right, sometimes without even knowing who the person really is. It's great to have a national conversation, and there's an underlying benefit to the unrest, so we can be more aware of people who have not had all the benefits of our country. But unfortunately, it often devolves into shouting and recriminations."

Still, Ellison said, "the country will come together. My bookstore is history-oriented, and history teaches us that we will always continue to evolve. Every generation thinks their time is the worst it's ever been. No, it's been worse. All of this has been brewing since long before the president even ran for office. But the boil will simmer down. Time settles emotions. Things have a way of balancing and righting themselves. They always have."

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