On this 4th I cannot celebrate


THIS promises to be an especially patriotic Fourth of July, overflowing with words and images of America triumphant.

But I am in a kind of internal exile from my country. I am a dissident in late 20th-century America, at odds with the patriotic majority and deeply suspicious of my own government.

America is the country of my birth, whose history I have taught and whose ideals I cherish. Yet, I cannot celebrate this national festival withy fellow citizens.

My nation disgraced itself in the Persian Gulf war. I watched my country go to war against a backward, minor power in order to restore an oppressive, autocratic monarch to his medieval throne. I listened to the inflated, bellicose and adolescent rhetoric of George Bush ("a new Hitler," "war crimes trials," "kick Saddam's ass" . . .), only to hear him as he turned his back on the revolution he championed.

Now, with the supposed demon still in power, I must witness the obscene spectacle of my fellow Americans cheering the destruction and death rained down on yet another Third World country. Our "victory" is that the Middle East is more unstable, impoverished and polluted than ever. Was it worth the sacrifice of hundreds of American lives and many thousands of Iraqi lives so that George Bush could claim credit for "licking the Vietnam syndrome"? On what basis, now, do we pretend to any moral superiority?

Thomas Jefferson, author of the document we celebrate, wrote in his "Notes on Virginia," "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

"We're No. 1" undoubtedly will be among the chants heard at Thursday's parades. Among the industrialized nations, however, the United States ranks dead last in percentage of people covered by health insurance, in educational quality and in the quality of its care of children. On the other hand, our rates of teen-age pregnancy, infant mortality and childhood malnutrition are comparable to those in Somalia and Bangladesh.

Nor do our domestic liberties, in whose name we declared our independence, fare better in this, the 215th year of our freedom.

A few more Supreme Court decisions and we shall have to drop "land of the free" from the lyrics of our national anthem. In little more than a month, the Reagan-Bush appointees have decided that the police may board public conveyances at will, without probable cause, though they need not tell the passengers they have the right to refuse such searches.

Police may now arrest and detain citizens, without formal charges, for two full days. More recently, the court has circumscribed the speech of doctors and nurses in abortion clinics, and it has given local police the power to jail citizens for public nudity in the name of some vague and undefined "morality." In fact, Justice Antonin Scalia publicly ridiculed the notion that freedom means "you can do what you like as long as it does not injure someone else."

Since the first July 4th, our government and our laws have presumed that the liberty of the individual was paramount in a nation where the people are sovereign. In other words, the government had to prove its case for curbing the rights of the people. That balance has shifted now, and this is not the same society in which I learned what "freedom" meant. This is not my country anymore.

A flag, flown upside down, has long been internationally recognized as a signal of distress. Accordingly, on this Fourth of July, in my distress at the health of the republic, I will display my nation's flag.

Upside down.

Robin J. Holt teaches at Towson State University. 6

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