Every year on July 4, Americans celebrate the anniversary of the commemoration of the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the Second Continental Congress in 1776.
It’s a remembrance of our past – the day when delegates from the Continental Congress prepared a statement to be read to the 13 colonies. Two days before, they had officially declared independence from Great Britain, a resolution in a unanimous vote. Thus began the life of our brand-new country, founded on the principles of freedom, limited government and individual responsibility.
July 4 is usually a joyful, carefree day in America. There are small town parades, beach days, barbecues, concerts, family reunions, fireworks, state fairs. It heralds the beginning of summer holidays. It has all of the spirit of the freedom that America was founded upon.
But this year is different.
Roe vs Wade stunned, angered and polarised the country even more than it already had been in the wake of Covid-19's devastation. For many women (and men), Roe was not about abortion, but about freedom. The decision has left many in the US, including Vice President Kamala Harris, concerned that conservative Supreme Court judges might go further and target contraception next.
“This is not over,” Ms Harris warned, ominously.
Despite "all men are created equal" there is a massive gap between the super-rich and poor. There is systemic racism. In 1852, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech entitled: "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?"
“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us," he said. "I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me."
Slavery ended in 1865, when the 13th amendment was adopted into the US Constitution. But racism and inequality have not ended. According to the National Urban League, the median income for black people is 37 per cent lower than white people. Black people trail in critical areas such as education, wealth, health, social justice and civic engagement.
Meanwhile, for those just focused on relaxation, money is an issue. Inflation is high. This means that food prices, like the traditional BBQ fare, are exorbitant. Meat prices are about 10 per cent higher than last year. One roll of paper towels cost me $4.99 in my shop around the corner in the East Village of Manhattan last week. One "Bone in beef Tomahawk Ribeye Steak" at Whole Foods cost $18.99 a pound (organic costs $23.99).
Another good reason to adopt a plant-based diet. But I have often wondered whether obesity in America is so prevalent – particularly in low-income areas, because fast food is cheap. To eat well and healthy, to eat clean and green, is actually very expensive. It's easier for a single mother to feed her children on McDonald's than it is to buy salmon and spinach.
Gas is also close to $5 a gallon – in Alaska, it is closer to $6 a gallon. This means that many can't travel far to see family or friends. Airline tickets are higher than usual. Trains in America have never been cheap, nor as easy as European ones – now they are more expensive.
Added to the financial worries are the existential ones. The agony of the war in Ukraine flashes on the news every night, as does gun control or more gun violence, or the question of famine in Africa because of Russia's withholding of grain, "weaponising" the war. US President Joe Biden appears weary, battered.
Then, there’s the trauma of January 6. The chilling testimony this week that Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide of Donald Trump, states that he literally grabbed a steering wheel, lunged at his own Secret Service agents, and tried to join the marauding crowd attacking the Capitol. Disturbing, to say the least. The New York Times called it "A president untethered", recalling his "final, frenzied days of his administration".
David Rothkopf, the host of Deep State Radio, deemed these days “the Great Regression … the undoing centuries of American progress”.
I think that sums it up. Rothkopf warns that history will look back at this period as a time when the nation seemed to be going backwards rather than progressing. "Thanks to a concerted campaign by America’s right wing, often with the help of centrists from both US political parties," he says, "we have watched as a long list of the signature milestones of American social advancement in the post WWII era are being reversed, undone or blunted."
Then there is the mid-term election; seven months of primary contests before election day.
So July 4, a symbol of freedom, will be more sombre this year for some, myself included.
I don't want to be entirely grim. America is also a country of optimism. We have gone through dark times before. The Great Depression of 1929-1939; the Second World War, the Vietnam War years, the Watergate scandal, even the past three years of dire Covid-19.
July 4 should be about reflection, too, about what we can do to be better citizens, and what is great about this country. "America is another name for opportunity," Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great transcendental essayist and poet, once wrote.
It is true. I was born in America but lived most of my adult life overseas. Returning four years ago, I was taken aback by many things – the Trump years, the insane healthcare system, the price of university education and the elitist system that still exists. But I was also struck by how anything is possible in America, and restrictions that exist in Old Europe, for instance, were shattered long ago. Things happen in America, where they often feel stalled elsewhere. Anything is possible.
As Rothkopf and others have pointed out, what drives America forward has always been activism and education. Many of us will continue to march and push for the rights that we deserve.
I still believe in America, I still love America. We have work to do. But hard work is something that Americans can do best.