Sitting on a beautiful boat in the Rock Hall marina last night I was captivated by one of the most delightfully comic July 4th dramas. Over the loudspeakers poised just inside the breakwater came the mournful strains of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ sung in a dirge tempo followed by twangy crooners lauding their American pride. Just beyond the barge, a respectable quantity of explosives lit the night sky for a solid sparkling shower of what was probably 15 – 20 minutes. And on the bridge, a dozen of us celebrated the camaraderie of old and new friends. Anonymously assured yet clamoring for no attention in the towering skies behind the foreground antics was one of the most terrible and beautiful thunderstorms I’ve seen. With thunderheads scratching the ceiling of the atmosphere, massive discharges danced in antiphon with the Chinese pyrotechnics showering into the Chesapeake Bay. During Lee Greenwood’s ‘I’m Proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free’, the lightning was flashing once every 7- 10 seconds, ever brighter and ever higher as if to say, “Look at me. Freedom, unconstrained, can soar to the heavens.”
Those who saw the lightning – and I’m fairly certain that there were a few – probably spent their time, in the main, commenting how glad they were that the thunderstorm was passing to our southwest so as not to rain on the festivities. But as the sparks persisted, I was lost in the discharges high above finding myself reveling in the enormity of the explosive power of polarity derived from wind, water and magic. And in the midst of my thoughts, I found a path towards another window on our present state of affairs.
Sitting on the waters of the Chesapeake, so many ironies flooded into the celebration of the birth of a nation which, in no small way, has a total incapacity to understand its roots or its destiny. Our national anthem, which has no connection to the birth of the nation, is the product of Francis Scott Key’s impotent musings on board the HMS Tonnant as he sat with American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel Skinner in the morning hospitality of British Officers Vice Admiral Cochrane, Rear Admiral Sir Cockburn and Major General Ross. Written during the bombardment of Baltimore in September of 1814 (during the optimistically named War of 1812 despite its 3 year duration with over 20,000 casualties), the poem questioned destiny rather than its modern wistful, illiterate celebration of assurance. Entrenched as our national anthem 80 years ago by the Hoover Administration during the carnage of the Depression, it is fascinating to see our modern fervor around the hymn in the face of looming certain erosion of our confidence and arrogance.
Ironic, too, that our celebration of independence from the tyranny of George is, once again marred by our desire for independence from the tyranny of another George – this one a wayward Republican who, as spender-in-chief, led the nation in an orgy of consumption befitting a thoughtless monarch for whom we are now all paying dearly. With his court still entrenched under the current administration, we find ourselves using Chinese explosives to mark our independence from… oh, that’s right, the makers of the fireworks.
And how fitting it is that our very name, the United States of America is unraveling as state after state confronts insolvency in the face of economic mismanagement and entitlement debauchery? One wonders precisely how many horses are in the stable of the apocalypse? Mind you, this is no catastrophic world-ender event. No, this is the apocalypse of our tired illusions in which Independent Supremacy is a fallacy around which we are all supposed to stand in Roman attention.
The pen that wrote our national anthem was sitting, at peace aboard the civil hospitality of an enemy. The President who, two generations ago vainly attempted to remind Americans of their manifest destiny, used a pensive supplicant poem as our anthem rather than a rallying march of confidence. And our celebrations of independence prophetically allow Chinese technology to define our highest moment of national pride. Are any of us capable of allowing the scales to fall from our eyes and realize that our aspiration to an exalted isolation is not only self-defeating but actually worsens the pain of our coming economic and civil realignments and necessitated austerity?
Chinese and Hindu tradition is filled with parables of the futility of these narrative-imposed conflicts. Morsels of wisdom fall from a table set rich with admonitions surrounding the conflict created by self-imposed illusions. I am particularly drawn to the wisdom lessons of Sun Wu Kong (the Monkey King in Chinese mythology) who is the audacious creature who, armed with invincibility and perfect clarity, spends his early incarnations fighting heaven, nature, demons, and everything with whom he can pick a fight. While he does a capital job of wrecking havoc throughout the universe, he finds it exhausting. Ironically, when cowed by the Goddess of Mercy, he finds obedience equally exhausting. It’s not until he sees his destiny to be a catalyst for change and an inspiration towards elevated purpose that he finds his place in the cosmology of the Buddha.
And, with a final stroke of irony, this mythical figure showed up in the lightning punctuated eve of our Independence Day. Thriruvananthapuram, home of one of the notable temples to Lord Hanuman (the Hindu deity counterpart of Sun Wu Kong) was the site of an archeological unveiling this week when a team found what may be one of the largest hoards of gold, diamonds and emeralds ever found in a single location. Reports of this cache predictably characterized it as ‘worth an estimated $17 billion’ which amounts to approximately 1 percent of India’s nominal GDP or 10 percent of the nation’s total revenue for fiscal year 2010. In a country so rich with cultural and religious awareness, I found it fascinating that such a revelation would be discussed in its Occidental, monetary consequence rather than its religious and metaphysical significance.
I wonder if we can, above the din of ‘bombs bursting in air’, take a moment to reflect on the experiment that is this country. We the People, are of necessity, not Independent. We are, in fact, fully dependent on a heterogeneous world. While our politicians debate debt ceilings and limits on expenditures, we seem to neglect a pathologically obvious assumption which is NOT a certainty – namely, that our neighbors across the globe actually will continue to extend us credit. This arrogance led the Federal Reserve into its uncomfortable position of having to be the buyer for U.S. Treasuries (conveniently termed Quantitative Easing). And, we will, before August 2, be confronted with a trillion dollar conundrum. Once again, we will need to present the world with a credit-worthy story about a country which honors its commitments. So, between the beer and hot dogs, toss a little tofu on the grill, douse it with some soy sauce and ask yourself what kind of neighbor are you? Because if we want interdependence to be palatable, we’d best learn to be guests on board a ship of another flag at least for a moment. Ponder that. Xie xie, Arigato, Danke, Shokran… you get the point.