Fourth of July: Home No More
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some pre-July 4th thoughts from essayist Roger Rosenblatt.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I love this country. I just can’t find it. So as America approaches its last 4th of July in the 20th century, my question is, where are we? (Fireworks exploding)
On a surface level, America looks like one solid, homogenized place. Drop a citizen on the outskirts of any city, and he’s made to feel at home by the array of identical shopping malls, food shops, Gaps, and cineplexes.
The cities themselves are looking more attractive with renewal projects like san Antonio’s Riverwalk and Baltimore’s inner harbor, but it’s still much the same. Walk around within all this sameness for a while, however, and the differences cry out.
Rich are separated from poor; Latinos from African Americans; Asians and Caribbeans from the rest — everyone living with his or her own kind. This group is opposed to that group, and all groups oppose the government, thus creating a country where everyone is pretty much home alone.
For its part, the government that is supposed to reflect the wishes of the people doesn’t have a clue as to what those wishes are, and remains isolated, on gun control or most anything else. As for us so-called “we the people,” we make faint noises about national unity from time to time– we like the environment, we don’t like crime– but most of the time, we park ourselves in front of the TV or the computer, in an effort to stay away from one another, or to destroy actual place, or to create a virtual USA. Businesses, too, are standing alone these days, as they amalgamate in the direction of becoming one very big company– America, Inc. Phone companies become cable companies; cable companies become phone companies; the giants then stalk the world. “Have a Coke, Paris.” “Have a smoke, Indonesia.” “Have a Big Mac, Tovarich.” Yet, our international tendencies don’t make a lot of sense. “Let’s trade with China. But Cuba? No cigar.”
Let’s all go to the same movie– American of course– but then let’s return to our private, self-interested lives. A rather good recent movie, “Election,” succeeds because it paints the country as the great American freak show of isolations and disconnections. Is this where we are on the 4th of July? I don’t sing America, but I feel it. And what I feel these days is a country growing away from itself. The rich may be getting richer, but money was never solely what the country was about, and when the bottom line becomes the reason for living, the country’s multiple divisions are exacerbated. For all its multinationalism, America is alone these days, alone in the world, and with itself, alone on the fourth. (Fireworks exploding)
In many ways, we are better than ever– low unemployment, more civil rights. But we are also less than we were when the century began. In the great wave of immigrants a hundred years ago, people came here to be part of something. They lived in ethnic divided pockets in New York, Chicago and Boston; they lived in color-divided pockets in Los Angeles and Detroit. But the assumption was that these were temporary quarters. Soon, it was hoped, the living would be easy, and everyone would be part of one America. Now, people still live in pockets, many of them upscale, to be sure, but on their own, gated or ghettoed. The image of a single “E Pluribus Unum” America may have always been a dream, but at least it was a shared dream. No longer. I love this country. I just can’t find it. (Band playing)
Have a happy Independence Day. Everyone is independent. At the turn of the new century, one wonders what to look forward to. I doubt that it will ever again be the prospect of the newcomer entering the country when the century began– that scene in the movie, “Avalon,” when a brand-new hopeful arrives in America on the 4th of July, in a sparkling bouquet of fireworks. Fireworks were symbols of celebration for a country, too, that was about to arrive. Well, here we are.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.