Interdependence Day

August?!?…tomorrow’s the 4th of July!

These words, as you know, are taken from the response of Mayor Vaughn of Amity, in the film Jaws, to police Chief Martin Brody, who had advised him to close the beaches, just before the biggest celebration in the American calendar.

Here’s the full exchange:

Chief Brody: Larry, Larry, if we make an effort today, we might be able to save August.

Mayor Vaughn: August?!? For Christ sake, tomorrow’s the 4th of July and we will be open for business. It’s gonna be one of the best summers we’ve ever had. Now, if you fellas are concerned about the beaches, you do whatever you have to, to make them safe. But those beaches will be open for this weekend.

This scene, depicting, as it does, a tussle between the desire to protect people from a deadly natural threat and the drive to get businesses back open (now why does that sound familiar?), is 45 years old this year.

That the exchange takes just before Independence Day makes it all the more pointed.

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate their “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”, as it says in the Declaration of Independence, and I suppose the tussle set out above illustrates that, well, you can’t have much liberty or pursue much happiness if you don’t have, you know, the first one.

But there’s another bit of the Declaration – which, remember, goes back a good two centuries even before Jaws – which strikes a curious note in the contemporary context: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

Who is the ‘we’ that speaks here? All men? All men?

In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement surely the only ‘self-evident’ truth is that America has never – never ­– lived up to its own inaugural promise, has defaulted on its promissory note, as Martin Luther King put it. So really tomorrow ought to be a moment of self-reflection. But it’s hard to imagine the MAGA crowd, whose demigod even tonight is moving his slow thighs towards Mount Rushmore, doubtless scrutinising the rock face for a suitable niche – hard to imagine them in a self-reflective mood.

And it’s the same over here.  When people talk about their national heritage, it gets turned into a partisan issue, the binary reduction machine gets cranked up, and before you know it all self-reflection is self-defenestrated.

But it’s curious how people’s identification with their ‘nation’ (or a projected, carefully cropped image of it, at any rate) is not only partisan, but partial in another sense.

People tend to identify with, even taking a share of the credit for, the ‘good’ parts of the nation’s history. The heroic parts.  The shameful bits are either ignored or externalised: ‘that was not really us, but some outside agitators…’; or it’s turned on its head, and anyone who merely reminds people of the shameful bits (how dare they!) is accused of being a traitor – or an outside agitator.

This is closely related to the urge to purge, the Farageist, Stephen Yaxley Lennon school of nationalism by exclusion. To go back to Independence Day – the film this time – Farageists tend to identify with (or see themselves as sidekicks to) the heroic President who personally leads troops in a defence of ‘freedom’ against alien invaders, thus uniting the nation behind him.

It’s not that they, the Farageists, the MAGA hats, cleave only to the positive in the nation with which they identify, it is that only a certain set of actions are permitted to be viewed as positive, and thus appropriated as ‘our’ actions. It’s all a bit male, it’s all a bit…violent.

And even when it’s not violent it’s selective: for instance, as David Olusoga notes in his outstanding Black and British, many in the UK are proud of Britain’s role in abolishing the slave trade; few are as keen to advertise that the same country enslaved more Africans than anybody else, all the way up to that point.

But it’s not just that people don’t like admitting the shameful parts along with the good. It’s a matter of emphasis too.

For instance, there’s a difference between those who, referring to the 2nd world war, think Britain fought against Nazism and those who think ‘we beat the Germans‘. Not that ‘we’ did anything, you and I – at least I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t born until over 20 years after the war, and one year after ‘the’ World Cup, for that matter.

And another thing: if it’s about celebrating great national achievements, it seems strange that the Farageists don’t embrace, say, the gathering of some thirty or forty thousand Chartists on Kennington Common in 1848, to demand democratic reform; or those who before them were struck down at Peterloo; or the cooperative pioneers in Rochdale, or the Suffragettes, or those who combined to create the international trade union movement. Strange omissions, if national pride is really your thing.

So many exclusions. But then, that may be exactly the point of the Farageist, MAGA movement: it’s more about excluding others than combining with them in solidarity. After all, you can’t admit any kind of dependence on others if you are to be a proudly independent (male) member of a proudly independent nation, after all.

But of course, you are – dependent on others, I mean. From the moment you throw off your cotton* sheets, and tip sugar* in your coffee* to the moment you unbutton your shirt* for bed, your life and the lives of others are intimately interwoven.

*Think of the history of all these goods; think of the conditions of those who produce them today.

So, I propose that today, the day before Independence Day, we pause, reflect, think about the failure to live up to the promise of equality whichever side of the Atlantic you come from, and declare 3rd July Interdependence Day.

Maurice Macartney

3 July 2020

UPDATE: 4 July 2020

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe when I open the news websites this morning, I’ll find Donald Trump will have given a speech as generous and inclusive as the moment demands at his Mount Rushmore event last night, acknowledging the oppression and violence of the past and calling everyone to work together, shoulder to shoulder, as equals in the task of bending the arc of history towards justice…

Oh, wait. “Trump Uses Mount Rushmore Speech to Deliver Divisive Culture War Message”, says the New York Times.

Turns out he positioned himself as strong defender of ‘the nation’s heritage’, saying:

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children…Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

No mention, then, of the systemic racism and police violence that called forth the biggest wave of social justice action to sweep America since the hey-day of the Civil Rights movement.

Those campaigners are ‘angry mobs’ trying to wipe out our history, erase our values.

‘Our’ history? ‘Our’ values?

Who are ‘we’?

Maurice Macartney

4 July 2020