Every year since arriving in the States we have taken the children to the Fourth of July Fireworks in Medford. Tonight will be no exception.
That first July, in 2000, is a time we can look back on now with nostalgia tinged with innocence, for so many reasons. I remember we were woefully unprepared: we had nothing to sit on, we got bitten to pieces by bugs in the early evening and were shivering by nightfall. As the years have passed we have become more sophisticated, some might argue more American. We have acquired a couple of those folding lightweight chairs you can sling over one shoulder. We own a wagon to pull the kids from the distant parking space, a cheery picnic blanket from Target, and various sizes of coolers depending on the size and appetite of the party. I even have a spangled American flag tee shirt of which I am embarassingly fond.
But for all of that, we are NOT American, and to be un-American in times like these is occasionally to be suspiciously foreign. There is also the complex and almost unanswerable question of whether we wish to be American. We were all born in England. My husband is passionately a Yorkshireman; I am regionally various, but my accent is Home Counties middle class. The children are, well, at least aware they are not American.
This glorious country frightens me, politically and religiously. I am not for the war in Iraq (although to you, as to the lady who accosted me at the poetry reading after I read an anti-war sonnet, let me reiterate I am not anti the military, especially the ones out there dying.) I am fervently pro-choice although I personally have never had, and would not now have an abortion. (But please, Mr. Bush, read The Cider-House Rules before you do any more damage to that part of the constitution.) I am pro gun-control and anti death penalty. Some of my best friends are gay.
But let me tell you a story that is even more frightening. England recently got knocked out of the Soccer World Cup, after a pretty good run. Following one of their earlier successes, my husband decided to drive down to his favorite bar flying the English flag out of his side window. Now, admittedly the English flag (a red cross on white background) is less familiar to this country than the Union Jack. However England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales all have their own soccer teams, so it is the appropriate one to fly in this case.
At a traffic light a lady drew up beside him and gesticulated angrily until he wound his window down. “It’s totally offensive,” she told him, “to fly any flag in this country that isn’t American, especially nowadays.”
My shocked husband rallied and replied that he did not feel she fully understood what the American flag represented. He might also have added that British soldiers are dying in Iraq right there alongside their American counterparts, and that Tony Blair has supported George Bush beyond the call of any agreements the two countries have signed.
My fear is that when patriotism becomes nationalism, prejudice and extremism are never too far away. Countries that have become extremely nationalistic would of course include Germany in the late 1930s. No doubt it was an offence against the Third Reich to fly any flag but the swastika.
I am wearing my American flag tee shirt. We will go and watch the fireworks, and the kids will wave the little flags they are given. Tomorrow we will grill, like any good American family.
But be careful, America, be very very careful.