July 05, 2006

George M. Cohan, call your office

In today's San Jose Mercury News, James Hohmann reports that some people are disturbed by what they see an increasing tendency to use "Fourth of July" in place of "Independence Day," a shift they consider just another assault on the spirit of American patriotism. "We lose a certain acknowledgment as to what the meaning of the Declaration of Independence is and why our nation was founded when we just say 'Happy Fourth of July,'" says one indignant patriot, who also sees the shift in naming as the sign of an increasingly commercial culture. And in the blogosphere, the gun rights enthusiast Publicola reprints an annual post reminding reader that "the holiday is called Independence Day. It occurs on the 4th of July. Unless you typically wish people a happy 25th of December or ask if they have plans for the 31rst of December then please try to refer to the holiday by its rightful name."

That's going pretty far to seek disquietude, particularly when it turns out that people haven't actually been bailing out on Independence Day in the first place. On the contrary: in the New York Times over the decade ending in 2002, Independence Day was about 85% as frequent as Fourth of July and July Fourth taken together, against only 60 % in the 1970's -- a figure that remained more-or-less at that level going back to the 1920's. And even if people actually were using Independence Day less, there's something goofy in the notion that "real" holidays don't go simply by dates.

For starters, it isn't as if using descriptive names for holidays preserves the their significance -- how many people could tell you what Armistice Day or Labor Day specifically are about? Nor would you want to argue that names like Labor Day and Christmas have impeded the commericalization of those holidays.

But what's more curious about the whole business is that Americans seem to have an aversion to referring to any; historical event by the date it occurred, the way people in other nations routinely do. The Italians have their December 12, September 20, February 8, October 25, and November 4 (to name just a few of the dates that have streets in Rome named after them). The French have their 9 Thermidor and 18 Brumaire, not to mention later dates like April 21. The Germans have June 17, the Portuguese have April 24. As I wrote once about these dates, "You have the image of a people turning the pages of the calendar in unison and marking the important dates in red letters. It's the same sense of history that allows families to refer to the dates of birthdays and anniversaries without having to remind each other what their significance is."

Whereas we have... well, damn near nothing anymore. Pull people under 40 or so off a bus at random and offer them $100 if they can identify the historical significance of any three of February 12, February 22, November 11, November 22, and December 7 -- your money will be safe. And hardly a man is still on the scene who can tell you what happened on April 18, either the old one (apart from inhabitants of Massachusetts residents old enough to remember the time before Patriots' Day was moved to the third Monday in April) or the recent one (apart from some guys in Idaho wearing camouflage and scanning the skies for black helicopters). Even September 11 is rapidly fading from the collective memory, as witness not just the dominance of the format "9/11"; but the fact that a lot of people pronounce it as if it were the same as the police emergency number.

Which leaves us exactly one date of historical significance that virtually all Americans can invest with historical significance: July 4. True, that's merely the date on which the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, two days after the delegates had actualy voted in favor of declaring independence. But that's a mere quibble -- the fact is that there's no other date so suffused with historical meaning. "Born on the Fourth of July" is quite as clear and a deal more stirring than "Born on Independence Day." And if Independence Day were ever really allowed to become the only name for the holiday (which could then be conveniently scheduled on the first Monday of July, I suppose), if would be reasonable to ask whether a people whose collective consciousness was completely devoid of dates could be considered a people with a history -- I mean, as opposed to merely a people with a handsome set of hand-colored dinner plates.

In the end, it's true, the complaints about calling the holiday the Fourth of July are so bizarrely off-the-wall that even the commander of the Santa Clara American Legion post was puzzled by them: "When we say Fourth of July, we're talking about Independence Day.'' The only mystery is why this issue should come up now, after a century or two when nobody saw anything problematic about "the Fourth." But as trivial as the issue is -- for now, anyway -- it reflects a new, strategically divisive sense of the significance of patriotic symbols. The point of symbols nowadays is not simply to declare one's devotion to one's country, but to insist that one loves it more than others did -- and hence to turn once universally sanctioned symbols into contested ones. Since the Vietnam era, Peggy Noonan wrote approvingly a few years ago, wearing a flag in one's lapel has been "a sign that said 'I support my country, and if you don't like it, that's too bad.'"

Hence the curious Lake Woebegon effect in American patriotism: in polls, around 60 percent of Americans describe themselves as more patriotic than the average American, while fewer than 10 percent consider themselves to be less patriotic. Or in other words, most people think that other Americans are less patriotic than they. And what better way to signal one's own superior patriotism and disparage the patriotism of others than to contest the way we refer to the Fourth of July -- in modern times, the one patriotic symbol that has never been controversial. As one Doc Farmer puts it on the right-wing ChronWatch site:

The date of America's anniversary may occur on July 4th, but to me, it's never the Fourth of July. It's Independence Day... Independence Day is more important to Americans--REAL Americans--than any other "National" holidays…. Independence Day probably means more to me than most "average" Americans.

Noted, Doc. Can you reach me another beer from there?

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at July 5, 2006 12:35 AM