The first Fourth of July that I specifically remember occurred in 1976. I’d recently turned six years old at the time of the actual holiday, but I think what I really remember is all the run-up to it. It was the country’s Bicentennial. Anticipation was high (and significantly drummed up) that this would be the finest Independence Day celebration the nation had ever seen. The word “Bicentennial” was everywhere, particular used to drive commerce with it rendered in red, white and blue on store windows to announce a sale inside, or at least the presence of home pyrotechnical devices that could be used for backyard ceremonies. Absolutely everyone was getting in on the act, and it was a time for inclusive national pride, differences bridged to come together in celebration of shared patriotism.
Except, of course, it wasn’t.
As Jill Lepore noted in a typically excellent New Yorker piece, planning for the Bicentennial was hindered by infighting as different constituents from all parts of the political spectrum actively fought to make sure their viewpoint were represented, or even preeminent. Grand ambitions kept getting scaled back. Unity was gone. Grand national celebrations were discarded in favor of a bolstering the festivities in a few major cities, leaving the rest of the country to their own devices. I was in Madison, a state capital named after the fourth President of the United States, and I don’t know that we had much beyond a typical array of fireworks displays. The Bicentennial was discussed endlessly and over in a flash.
One of the things that I most appreciate about Lepore’s piece is the way it demonstrates the current vicious political divisiveness, media complicity and irresponsibility, sensationalized conflict, and widespread intolerance for a range of ideas are not new symptoms. They are longstanding, embedded facets of the American character. Nearly every blemish on our national discourse has a precedent, nearly every bit of appalling ugliness has a precursor.
And yet, there’s an evolution, at least in what is considered acceptable to bring to the ongoing debate. Maybe its an inevitability of a more and more stratified culture with people retreating to isolation tanks filled with only media that reinforces their own rigidly held opinions. Evidence of that is the way that comedy becomes reality. Right-wingers are oblivious to the satire inherent in Stephen Colbert’s persona. The Kids in the Hall toss off a sketch that derives its humor from exaggerrated, outdated paranoia over Communist infiltration and the transcript could be read verbatim on Glenn Beck’s program without eliciting suspicion. And then there’s the bit created by Albert Brooks on the brink of that previously mentioned Bicentennial.
On his second and final comedy album, A Star is Bought, Brooks included a track entitled “Phone Call to Americans” in which he gets advice from Linda Ronstadt about breaking into country and western radio. The result is a patriotic diatribe in which he challenges Americans about the tragic changes besetting the nation “celebrating her 200th birthday.” What follows is pointedly ludicrous, a litany of transgressions against the idealized freedoms and fervor of true Americans. No matter how wild his accusations, there’s a certain percentage of the citizenry that, in hearing this, would nod their heads in recognition and sympathy, pleased someone has presented their views with accuracy and dignity. A line like “Why, do you know today doctors can keep a man’s kidneys alive, even without his permission?” could inspire angry shouts at a Tea Party protest over health care reform right now.
So this is how I’ll commemorate the United States of America’s 234th birthday, by presenting that recorded phone call in all its old glory.
(Disclaimer: Albert Brooks may be widely revered as brilliant and innovative, but that doesn’t mean his work stays in print and available. In fact, I’m not sure this album has even been released on CD. That’s the price of being a cult favorite. This track is offered with the understanding that it can’t be acquired in a way that provides compensation to Mr. Brooks. If you’d like to add to his bank account, you could always buy a DVD copy of his best movie. If someone with due authority to do so asks me to remove the track from the Interweb, I will gladly comply. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also note that this track was originally uploaded by someone else. Much as I’d love to have it, I don’t own a copy of A Star is Bought.)