“When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

5 Jul

Hello! Happy 4th of July! I’m sure many of you are celebrating with friends, family, and food. Possibly also fireworks. (Fourth of July alliteration, you dig?) My celebration started last night, when MFS and I baked what we planned to be red, white, and blue kolaches. Then, we decided they would be much more delicious if we cooked the strawberries and blueberries and mixed them with cream cheese filling. We now have pink, white, and purple kolaches instead. I am not complaining. They are still delicious! To begin our independence day, we ate the kolaches along with some freshly battered and fried cheese curds and sweet onions. Then, we took it downstairs to the basement TV room to watch a couple of our favorite movies about America n stuff.

First up, 1776, the 1972 movie version with Mr. Feeny as John Adams. I have so many wonderful memories of this movie starting back in fifth grade, when my teacher, Mrs. Barbee, showed it in class. From then on out, whenever my good behavior resulted in getting to eat lunch in the classroom instead of the cafeteria, I would also ask to watch 1776 while hanging out with my other goody two shoes nerdy friends. There are countless awesome moments in the film, and I actually love all of the music, but the song that always strikes me the most is the one that is sung by the army messenger after he brings yet another dreary dispatch from George Washington. It’s called “Mama, Look Sharp.” For some reason wordpress is refusing to put it into this post, so if you want to see it, just click this link.

I especially enjoyed the multiple references to New Jersey and the specific references to New Brunswick, like this one:

John Adams: Wake up, Franklin, you’re going to New Brunswick!

Benjamin Franklin: Like hell I am, what for?

I don’t want to get all nationalistic or anything, but there is something really excellent about a musical that is solely dedicated to the process of declaring independence in the Constitutional Congress.

Then, we moved from watching a movie about a white dudes’ revolution, where slavery is a divisive issue but women’s rights aren’t even mentioned, much less addressed, to the fantastic Iron Jawed Angels. I remember the first time I watched this film. I didn’t see it until I was in college. I happened upon it by accident while browsing at Vulcan Video, and I just remember sobbing uncontrollably through almost the entire film. One excellent scene is their interpretation of an actual march for women’s suffrage that took place in 1913. Check it out.

I bring this up, because I know what the fourth of July can be like. We like to talk in terms of American exceptionalism and to celebrate our founding fathers. We like to have parties and watch fireworks, and to celebrate our country. I understand that desire. After watching 1776, I was feeling pretty damn patriotic. But, here’s the thing. In both my research for my thesis and in the news about the upcoming election cycle, I am noticing a frightening trend of attributing some sort of demi-god status to our founding fathers and to the documents they created. As a friend pointed out in his facebook status today, we’re celebrating that “a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic white men didn’t want to pay their taxes.” Of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Not all of the delegates to the Constitutional Congress had slaves, though they were all white, propertied men. Taxation without representation was an issue, but it wasn’t the only one. Also, the deal wasn’t exactly that they didn’t want to pay their taxes, but that they did not want to pay unjust taxes to a tyrannical crown that refused the colonists their rights. I have a lot of issues with the growing chorus of founding fathers idolization, like, as my friend pointed out in his status, the complete refusal to acknowledge the privilege and prejudices of those delegates. But, mainly, I do not like the idea that somehow, those people knew better what to do for our country than we do now. Doing this is similar to what a pastor at a Baptist church here in Madison did last Sunday in his sermon about the importance of rest. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people say that it is O.K. to take naps. I love naps! The part of the message I had an issue with was when the pastor implied that the world is “finished,” as he did when he quoted the final words of Jesus (“It is finished.”). This pastor was trying to say that we shouldn’t be so stressed out about everything, because Jesus and God have totally got this. Do you see the similarities between that guy’s message and the message of politicians who constantly try to go to the intentions of the founding fathers for the basis of their conservative political arguments? The two time periods sure do have a lot in common: slavery, the oppression of women, etc, etc. I completely disagree with these interpretations. There is a lot to do, and we are the only ones who are going to do it.

If Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and all of the other countless suffragettes had believed this rhetoric of the infallibility of the founding fathers and the founding documents, women would not have the right to vote in this country. If the abolitionists, many of whom were also in the suffrage movement, had granted the founding fathers demi-god status, the mere argument that some of them owned slaves would have stopped the movement in its tracks. Governments, as well as political movements, are created by people, and people are fallible. Without an open mind to change, equality will always be a pipe dream.

So, this fourth of July, I’m thinking about the revolutionary and rebellious character of many American heroes. I’m also thinking about the way certain stories are silenced, and many heroes are kept from history textbooks to preserve a nationalist, exceptionalist American narrative. I am thinking about the danger of idolizing our predecessors, whether they are old white dudes in the 1770’s or young suffragettes in the 1920’s. Consider the courage it takes to recognize an injustice and then do something about it. The Declaration of Independence, with all of the issues of race, class, gender, and privilege surrounding it, is still a document that declares that people have the right to push back against tyrannical and unjust government. The nineteenth amendment is about the belief in equality for all people, a belief that is outlined in that very Declaration we celebrate today.

Today, I am thinking about how I’ve felt since January. I am thinking about feeling as if I am caught in the undertow of a political movement that does not represent me, and that I don’t understand. I am thinking about the sense of a loss of control, a growing awareness of corporate influence in legislation, and a sense of complete and utter horror at the seemingly insurmountable attack on women’s reproductive rights in this country. And then, I am reminded that democracy is hard won and it is not always easy. So, this fourth of July, I hope that you consider your involvement in the ongoing project that is America. I hope you remember how many rebellious people stood up to fight against inequality, and I hope you realized that, as the quote goes, citizenship is not a spectator sport. There are very large and very powerful political forces in this country, but I do honestly believe in the possibility of change. So, today, I celebrate our revolutionary history as a nation, and I raise my celebratory alcoholic beverage in a toast to the hope of what could still be.

Happy fourth from Wisconsin!


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