Like Ashland on the map of the state, the Southern Oregon city’s July 4 parade is on the edge. It’s an all-comers occasion, with marchers including service organizations, folks from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, religious groups, the occasional drug treatment program, trick bicycle riders, classic cars, politicians and, at least one year, a woman who insisted, despite a court order, on roller-skating the parade route topless.
Because it’s in Oregon, the day begins with a run, and because it’s in America, it ends with fireworks.
Right now is a tricky time for any national celebration, with chaos in Washington and fighting in the streets of Portland, and free speech morphing into free screaming. We the people seem as polarized as a car battery, and public opinion researchers who used to ask Americans how they would feel about their children marrying someone of a different race now ask their subjects how they’d feel about their children marrying someone of a different party.
(Short answer: Not good, which suggests either some awkward family dinners or some sharply narrowed dating options.)
But it’s still a time to shoot off fireworks, to mark the place we are and the place we want to be. July 4 – or as any self-respecting 19th century political orator would say, “the Glorious Fourth” – has its own deep roots in both time and localities, blooming above today’s contemporary political unpleasantness. If the last thing you want to hear on this occasion is a speech from our current leaders, it’s not necessary.
Nobody signed the Declaration of Independence with a D or an R after his name. Celebration of independence goes back a long way, not just before political parties but before the United States even had a president. Americans started holding public readings of the Declaration of Independence back when its author was still alive.
Fireworks go back to before Europeans even came across America.
Even though the day comes in the summer, so it doesn’t provide time off from school, July 4 has deeper roots than other holidays, which often hang on cues from politicians or advertisers. Thanksgiving was started by a presidential proclamation – Lincoln didn’t tweet – and has featured one ever since. (The current White House occupant may well issue a Thanksgiving proclamation urging Americans to be thankful for him.) Labor Day, at least in even-numbered years, is an occasion for campaign speeches, not to say back-to-school specials. Presidents’ Day, having lost any connection with Washington’s cherry tree or Lincoln profiles cut out of construction paper, is now mostly a moment for mattress sales.
But as the Ashland grass-roots celebration points out, American places have their own events and meanings for July 4. Portland has a blues festival, and this year the blues might have even deeper significance. St. Paul has a rodeo, a tradition that endures whoever is in office, and transcends any passing arguments about grain-fed or grass-fed livestock. Estacada has a Timber Festival, with a much healthier rendition of log-rolling than typically seen in Washington, D.C. Bend, since the 1930s, has had a Pet Parade (“No rabbits, cats or aggressive dogs”), making it the rare spot where independence from Great Britain is celebrated by llamas. The biggest fireworks show west of the Mississippi explodes out of Fort Vancouver, a fort in operation since 1825, or long before televised Senate hearings. Ulysses S. Grant was once stationed there, although he probably didn’t have a holiday cook-out.
So Oregon has reason to celebrate the Fourth, and ways and means to celebrate the day, regardless of who’s watching the national fireworks show from the White House lawn. It’s also true regardless of who inhabits the state capitol or any city hall, although those folks are more likely to march in local parades – hopefully not behind the llamas.
Around the country, and in Portland particularly, there are newer traditions on July 4 and other holidays: massive expressions of free speech that fill up the streets and lead to considerable police overtime. This is maybe more related to today’s news, although in Portland those kinds of demonstrations have been a tradition for decades, since before the current president ever fired anyone on television.
The Portland holiday tradition definitely needs to cut out the broken windows, fires, stopping freeways and MAX, and throwing things at police and other demonstrators. It’s wrong, and it rightly angers people, and it overcrowds the Multnomah County jail.
But it’s worth remembering, despite any current political conditions – or sometimes especially because of current political conditions – that July 4 is celebrating a seditious uprising, a group of angry Americans getting together to protest about politics, and to sign Thomas Jefferson’s list of complaints.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt told the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938, after noting the war record of his own 18th century ancestors, “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
It’s an idea that provokes fireworks.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/2/17.