Ironies in the Fireworks

America’s Independence Day Viewed Through A Lens From 1986

What would the Fourth of July be without nostalgia?

In the nostalgic spirit of the Fourth of July, here are some of the things that seemed important 27 years ago, at least to the editor of the Progressive:

— President Reagan was promoting the Strategic Defense Initiative, a theoretical missile defense system referred to as “Star Wars” that continues to cost billions of dollars a year (well past $100 billion total, no one really knows how much) without useful accomplishment for the nation.  Reagan promised that the program would make nuclear missiles “impotent and obsolete.”

— Military spending continued to remain larger and to grow faster than any other budget category worldwide. There were roughly 15 wars being fought.

— U.S. advisors and CIA personnel continued to train and work with government-supported death squads in El Salvador

— Conservative William F. Buckley was advised that “This is the moment for skillful diplomacy. We need to go a step further than to leave our bases in the Philippines at the mercy of democratic whimsy.”

Names May Change to protect the Guilty, But Corrupt Corporations Abide

— Corporate corruption was a rising concern. The names in the news then included E.F. Hutton, W.R. Grace, General Dynamics, Raytheon, as well as less familiar outlaws like Rocco Enterprises (turkey processing), Kerr-McGee (nuclear waste processing), and A.H.Robins (purveyor of the lethal Dalkon Shield).

— A cartoon in an ad for Mother Jones magazine showed a TV host holding out a glass to a guest and saying, “Perhaps a glass of water to wash down that incredible bunch of lies.”

— Democratic party “realists,” reacting to the Reagan landslide of 1984, were re-shaping the party, arguing that it could no longer appeal to voters as a liberal party, much less a progressive one.

— A review of Robert Heilbroner’s book, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, noted that: “… questions of morality cannot intrude upon the drive to amass wealth.  The sacred and the secular – religion and science – serve to promote the capitalist logic of untrammeled growth.  Under the juggernaut lie two victims: nature and culture.”

— At the Federal prison in Marion, Illinois, the U.S. Justice department encouraged guards to use as much violence and brutality as they felt appropriate, claiming the prisoners there were the “most difficult and recalcitrant.” That was a lie. The Bureau of Prisons continued to resist investigation by Congress or the Federal courts.

Missile Protests May Have Faded, But the Nuclear Missiles Abide

— In Rhode Island, five anti-nuclear activists damaged missile tubes at the Electric Boat shipyard.  A state judge told them, “your acts are the first-cousin to the bomb-throwers, grenade-throwers, and airplane hijackers.” The judge castigated a prosecutor for proposing a plea bargain and sentenced the five to the maximum of a $500 fine and a year in jail.

— “Under Surveillance,” the lead editorial by Edwin Knoll, commented on a ten-year-old lawsuit by 25 individuals and organizations who claimed that authorities spied on them, kept dossiers on them, and disrupted their lawful activities.  The claim was true and the court awarded them, collectively, $306,250.

— Another editorial described Rev. Paul Kabat, who was serving a 10-year sentence for damaging a missile silo hatch near Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Rev. Kabat wrote an article for the Progressive. The magazine with his article, mailed to the prison, came back stamped “NOT ACCEPTABLE.” After the Progressive complained, the warden said it was a mistake by a new staff person.

— In a story about the cross-country trucking of radioactive waste, by Samuel H. Day, Jr., there was this sub-head: “The Government’s fixation – secrecy as its first defense against nuclear terrorists – puts the public at risk of contact with radioactive, explosive matter.”

—  Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan were in the early stages of discussing ways to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

Few Recognized Climate Change in 1986, But it, too, Abides 

Close to half the people alive in America today were not alive in 1986 or have no meaningful memory of the time. An equal proportion of, but likely not all the same Americans, are “certain God exists,” and a much greater percentage is affiliated with a religion.

So what does Independence Day mean to Americans today? The United States has been fully independent from the English crown since 1791 and there’s no danger of losing that independence to any other power now or in the near future, and there almost never has been such a danger.

So the country is independent, and the people might celebrate that with happy satisfaction — if only the federal government hadn’t slowly, steadily, and sometimes stealthily declared its independence from the people. Across the political spectrum, people despair of bringing the government under control again, if it ever was.

The Power Structure May Keep a Low Profile, But it Abides Most of All 

Celebrating Independence Day is more than a little ironic for most Americans, especially those who perceive that the people have been colonized by their own government.

On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which ends with these words:

That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

And so we celebrate the words and thoughts that created free and independent states, and independent white men in 1776, and we mostly take some pride in the independence other people have slowly achieved since then, but we don’t give much thought to what the 1791 Constitution has meant for free and independent states.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.