Music moves, propels, and speaks to the emotions of the listener. The sounds of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros has grasped my heart as of late. They are a ragamuffin group, full of old heads, hippies, and crust punks and their musical genre could be labeled as 70’s folk rock with lyrics speaking of a spiritual and existential journey. A song that has particularly resonated with me is “Man on Fire.” Sitting aside the androcentrism within the lyrics, this song speaks in a way that relates to common ideas held in light of Independence Day. Edward Sharpe sings,
“Everybody want safety
Everybody want comfort
Everybody want certain
Everybody but me”
The first three lines speak of the shared narrative in the US: safety, comfort and certainty. We want safety from people who do not like us. We want to be comforted in the life that we lead. In addition, we desire certainty with our motives, ideologies and lifestyles, knowing that we are not doing anything wrong. And these three things remain: safety, comfort and certainty. The greatest of these is safety.
Since we live in a post 9/11 world, safety has become a major concern for all Americans. We fear the Other like never before. A recent story shows our overeagerness/worrisomeness to keep safety a top priority. JFK airport evacuated everyone and canceled two flights because a metal detector was not plugged in. Safety concerns us more than anything. This has been a theme since the nation’s beginnings.
The national anthem’s lyrics involve a battle in which the primitive US military conquered the Other through violence. Thus our anthem is not about unifying the people of the US because of our humanity or our beautiful landscape (Although there is some debate between the Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful for a national anthem. One more war-like and the other lending fire to our civic religion’s burn pile.) It is the anxiety of the Other, our selfish concerns with safety, and the common narrative that we tell ourselves that has created a festishized culture of people looking for safety through other venues, such as an obsession with entertainment and celebrities.
Comfort also invaded and dominates US culture. This is accomplished through the comfort that we find in technology. We have an excess of technological gadgets that have overcome our culture. There are devices that have entirely no meaning, or that we as a culture created a meaning once these objects were commodified. A good example of this are computer tablets, they function as a large touch screen phone without the ability to call people. Originally, they seemed meaningless, yet since then they have grown in popularity and function as a “green” magazine reader, a video camera, etc.
We have slept in our comfort as a nation and cannot imagine what it means not to be privileged. (This is not to say that there are not people in the US who have not felt the weight of oppression, since there are many groups have, especially those native to the land.) German poet Rainer Maria Rilke longed for people of privilege to feel uneasy about the ways in which they were living. Early in his writing career, he poetically wrote, “All of you undisturbed cities, haven’t you ever longed for the Enemy?” Rilke stressed that sometimes being uncomfortable helps one to value life more and its fleeting nature. Change is inevitable, and our approach to change must be intentional. This is similar to the Hegelian notion that countries should go to war with one another because “the ethical health of the peoples is preserved in their indifference to the stabilization of finite institutions,” and that “corruption in nations would be the result of prolonged, let alone ‘perpetual’ peace”(Philosophy of the Right para. 324).
Eruptions of existential crises are necessary to change the historical course and redirect culture, country, and people. The event of 9/11 created this for the US. It made the US seem venerable and we made the rest of the world know that we will not be so. Hence, the problem is that we in the US live in “perpetual peace” having safety and security. The US must change toward a different kind of peace. One in which our slogan Peace through victory changes to Peace through compassion. Another tragedy does not need to happen for us to change our course away from safety and security. Instead, something should be able to occur from the bottom-up and help to change our narrative into something more compassionate and communal, rather than individualized and certain. Independence Day must take on a new tone, not of conquering, but of kinship.
Timothy Wotring is a graduate of Eastern University in Saint David’s, PA. He lives in West Philadelphia and is a member of the Episcopal Church. He blogs at blackflagtheology.com and is interested in political, liberation, feminist, and postcolonial theologies.