The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays, even though I despise the summer. That’s because this most red, white, and blue of our annual celebrations belongs to Philadelphia in a particularly personal way. Despite our attempts to ruin it (See Rizzo, Frank near Debacle, Bicentennial) there is something transcendent in the fact that the greatest country on Earth had its genesis in this air, on this soil, under these skies. Other cities have museums — we are a living archive of greatness.
There are naysayers, of course, on both sides. Progressives have a tendency to write books with titles like Lies My Teacher Told Me and lament the fact that, in their opinion, the non-white, non-male, non-Christian aspects of our history are ignored. People on the right have taken to shouting “Make America Great Again,” implying that it is currently a “not great” mediocrity. The warring camps would be upset to realize how much they have in common: one side thinks it never was great, and the other thinks the current version stinks.
To deny that the United States of America is unique among nations for its impact both symbolically and empirically is to engage in magical thinking. The post-American world looks nothing like the universe before the star-spangled supernova burst onto the scene 243 years ago. It’s fine to criticize our flaws, since as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.” But to focus on every piece of minutiae and subject it to a litmus test of “wokeness” is to make a mockery of the foundational struggle – one for survival, not small details that get litigated by political correctness — culminating in the Declaration, and independence.
Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t learned that lesson. The former NFL quarterback who famously took a knee during the national anthem decided to make some waves on the eve of Independence Day by persuading Nike to recall a commemorative sneaker he thinks is racist. He managed to convince Nike that selling a shoe with the Betsy Ross version of the flag on it was a bad idea. Apparently that original colonial flag, which flies outside the seamstress’ house here in Philly, has been co-opted by some extremist right-wing groups to celebrate the days when slavery was legal, and the flag is too closely tied to that time period.
Of course, by that logic, we should just take the faces of the founding fathers off our currency because they were also around when slavery was legal, and they were a lot more blameworthy than some poor inanimate little flag. And perhaps maybe we should take William Penn’s statue off City Hall, because he was around when slavery was rampant in Britain and getting a foothold in his greene country towne. And we really should rename that bridge, the one named after Franklin, because he was around when slavery was legal. In fact, maybe we should just rip every identifying characteristic off every building, thoroughfare, park, waterway, church, school and every other object that existed before the 13th Amendment was passed, because it all predates the time when America eradicated its original sin.
Maybe it’s because I’m a proud Philadelphian who spent a good chunk of her childhood visiting Betsy’s house and snapping photos with that flag. I know that historians have pretty much debunked the idea that she sewed the flag, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a uniquely Philadelphia story that enriches our municipal heritage. It’s nowhere near as important as Declaration House, where Jefferson composed the document, or Independence Hall, where it was signed, or the hallowed place where our Constitution was ratified, but it has its own sweet symbolism that shouldn’t be ignored by people who are obsessed with grievance.
But it’s really more than that. The fact that a business would cave to the hypersensitivity of a man who finds offense on the back of a sneaker is a sad commentary on where we are as a nation. It demeans and diminishes the struggle for civil rights, reducing it to a fight over overpriced footwear.