Eliot got it wrong when he gave that honour to April in The Waste Land. Well, not wrong exactly, but right only on his own metaphorical terms.
However, if we segue from Eliot’s sublime poetic imagery to the nuts and bolts of modern political history, then July has to take pride of place in any cruelty contest. For the fourth and fourteenth of that month mark the two cataclysmic events, each driving nails into the coffin of our civilisation.
The fourteenth is Bastille Day in France, celebrating the day when a mob stormed that symbol of oppression in 1789. In Robbie Burns’s poem The Tree of Liberty, the eponymous tree “… stands where ance the Bastille stood,/ A prison built by kings, man,/ When Superstition’s hellish brood/ Kept France in leading strings, man.”
The mob heroically stormed the undefended prison, to find that “Superstition’s hellish brood” kept “in leading strings” not all of France, but just seven inmates. Rather tame, as far as oppression goes, but it was the absence of thought and overabundance of emotion that mattered.
(Scotland’s national poet was definitely national, but not much of a poet. Italy had Dante, England had Shakespeare, France had Racine, Germany had Goethe, Russia had Pushkin – and Scotland had a spinner of bawdy doggerel.)
Since that day, France has been straining every sinew trying to live down the awful consequences of the French Revolution, with variable success. But the earlier July event, one that happened 246 years ago today, has had a different effect on the perpetrators.
Rather than trying to mitigate the negative effects of their own revolution, Americans have since been trying to do their utmost to exacerbate them. One such was the typical neophyte zeal they display when protesting their patriotism.
Patriotism is a kind of love, and real love is a quiet emotion. If a man walks around screaming at all and sundry how much he loves his wife, he’s probably stupid or even insane. In the very least, he is a vulgarian who might have learned his manners at a correctional facility for young delinquents.
Moreover, sane, intelligent and well-mannered people will instantly think that the chap doth protest too much. He sounds as if he were out to convince not so much others but above all himself of the feeling he tries to manufacture but doesn’t really have.
The same goes for patriotism. Loving one’s country is both natural and commendable, but shouting that love from the rooftops is neither.
When I lived in America, I tried to sequester myself on the Fourth of July. Even before I knew better, I winced at the sight of multitudes obediently putting their hands over their hearts on cue. The gesture is clearly Masonic and heathen, like much of American livery – from the cyclopes pyramid on the dollar bills to the pagan temples in Washington’s Tidal Basin.
Even more cringe-making was the ubiquitous phrase “God bless America”, which is the de rigueur ending to every soliloquy delivered by every politician, even a rank atheist.
To be fair, the popular sacralisation of America didn’t start with the Revolution. When the first settlers arrived on the Mayflower, their leader John Winthrope immediately likened the new land to the city on a hill mentioned by St Matthew.
That was understandable then. The settlers were threatened by feral animals, scalping Indians, inclement weather, uncertain food supply, the foreboding mass of a huge, unpredictable continent. They had to believe God was with them because no one else was.
But now that the West has gone atheist, this “God bless America” business is naff. It would be fine as a line in the national anthem, but not as part of a spiel used by a politician to trick votes out of the electorate. In that context, the line ill-serves both America and God.
I can’t for the life of me imagine any British politicians, including jingoistic ones, ending a speech with “God bless Great Britain”. I attended a few gatherings of UKIP, a party for which patriotism was its whole programme, and I’m friends with one of the party’s former chairmen. But never once did I hear any UKIPers, including those I knew to be extremely pious, shout the patriotic beatitude – the laws of good taste haven’t quite yet been repealed here.
Anyway, how is America blessed more than any other residually civilised country? It has much natural beauty, but then so does every country I know. And if we accept that God also blesses people aesthetically, by inviting them to emulate His creative powers, then American cities don’t show many signs of such a blessing, especially when compared with, say, Italy or France.
America’s youth doesn’t work as an explanation here, for much of both Paris and London was built in the 19th century, when America was already going strong. Yet either place is more aesthetically ‘blessed’ than any American city.
Loving one’s country is indeed love, a manifestation of both God’s essence and His way of dealing with the world. But loudmouthed protestations and festooned pageants vulgarise this noble emotion, while making one doubt its sincerity.
The same goes for the American obsession with greatness, something she shares with Russia, if in a more benign fashion. A person or, by way of extrapolation, a nation should strive to be good, not great. And then perhaps it will become great.
The criteria of goodness are indisputable, especially for a nation that squeezes God’s name into every imaginable context, including inappropriate ones. For details, look up the writing of the author I mentioned earlier, St Matthew. Acting as his teacher’s mouthpiece, he explains what it means to be good and what kind of people are blessed.
The criteria of greatness, on the other hand, are subjective. Both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump doubtless want America to be great, but they define the concept differently. The only way to decide the issue is to ask the electorate, which by itself shows how relativist this whole idea is.
Greatness may be associated with military strength, territorial expansion, universal prosperity, free medical care, rampant egalitarianism, black lives that matter more than any others, low taxation, high taxation, more immigration, less immigration, abortions banned or available on demand – and who’s to say what adds up to greatness and what doesn’t? One man’s greatness is another man’s Donald Trump.
On this day in 1776 American founders signed the clearest statement of Enlightenment values before the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Some of those signatories, such as the country’s second president John Adams, later got to regret that act bitterly.
“Did not the American Revolution produce the French Revolution? And did not the French Revolution produce all the calamities and desolation of the human race and the whole globe ever since?” he wrote in 1811.
And Tolstoy wrote that every man is a fraction, where the numerator is what he is and the denominator is what he thinks of himself. The same applies to nations, and I’m not sure the product of the American fraction is as unequivocally positive as many Americans so fervently believe.
Still, there is something endearing about so many people celebrating their national holiday with so much enthusiasm. So happy Fourth of July to all my American readers. A country that can produce so many such people can’t be all bad.