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Exclusive: Born on July 4

One afternoon in third grade, I was in the art room proudly working on a strip of brown construction paper four feet wide. The next day there was to be a school pageant about America and, as the aggressively self-proclaimed class artist, I had volunteered to make the stage backdrop. I’d proposed a picture of an eagle, but not just any eagle: My plan was to portray the national bird as perched on the great seal—wings outstretched, talons grasping arrows and olive branch, body a peaked shield of 13 vertical red and white stripes, scroll in beak. I tried to draw each brown feather, each arrow tip, but the details were difficult, and I found myself close to tears in my frustration as I rushed. Still, I struggled, bent over, my thick crayons darting and flying across the face of the paper. After all, I was drawing not just an eagle but also an avatar of myself, because I was born on the fourth of July. I grew up sure I was special in some undefined way and certain my destiny was entwined with my nation’s. Being born on any holiday naturally makes you feel special: You’re immediately notable to other kids, if only in this small detail and for a few seconds. “Wow, you were born on [fill in holiday]? Really? Are you [fill in emotion]? You must be [fill in cliché]!” In my case, the cliché was Yankee Doodle Dandy. After this preliminary, most kids switch to summary judgment: either “That must suck!” (Christmas) or “Hey, that must be great! The whole country is celebrating your birthday!” (July 4). [caption id="attachment_7847" align="alignleft" width="600"]SparklersInset Photo courtesy of hidinginabunker/Flickr[/caption] Indeed. If you must be born on a holiday, July 4 is the best one. Everyone is hungover on New Year’s; Christmas dwarfs your importance (and your expectation of any gifts); and only lovers get attention on Valentine’s Day. But July 4 is not only conveniently balmy, it comes to us free of any ancient religious ritual or obscure ethnic observance. It commemorates no battle but a simple declaration; honors no dead hero but rather exalts and exults the living; marks no loss or gain but is rather a placeholder of possibility, within which we can sketch our hopes and plans. It’s a holiday for an idea—an idea that still lives and lives through all of us—so we can sincerely celebrate it together. Independence_Day_connects_sideI grew up in a secular, intellectual household, so the holidays I loved and adopted as my own were the abstract ones: New Year’s Eve and July Fourth, pleasingly balancing each other at the turn and the virtual midpoint of the year. New Year’s Eve celebrates the passing of the mysterious substance humans live in— time—and Independence Day celebrates the weird power of which we imagine ourselves in possession—freedom. Time and freedom: both mysteries that, when taken together, define our existence. Every six months we pause to acknowledge that we’re alive, moving through time and free to write our own stories. And we take stock: What milestone has been passed, what vow sworn or smashed? Like New Year’s Eve, July Fourth seemed to mainline directly into time itself, like the year’s musical punctuation. I knew early on that Louis Armstrong, father of the first great American art form, claimed to be born on July 4, 1900. As a young aspiring musician, this pleased me greatly. It turns out he was probably wrong. He’d grown up in an orphanage, but birth records were eventually found and proved he was born on August 4, 1901. Similarly, the great songwriter George M. Cohan insisted he was born on Independence Day, and wrote “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy” to celebrate himself. He too was exaggerating: He was born a day earlier, according to his birth certificate, but that didn’t stop him from claiming the nation’s birthday as his own to the very end. [caption id="attachment_7846" align="aligncenter" width="600"]FireworksInset Photo courtesy of portofsandiego/Flickr[/caption] Musicians have always been a bit mystical about things like this, perhaps because Stephen Foster, America’s first great songwriter and another “father of American music,” truly was born on July 4. Foster wrote most of the Civil War–era songs we associate with Americana: “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races” (the doo-dah, doo-dah song), “My Old Kentucky Home,” “(I Dream of) Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Old Folks at Home,” among others. Foster was born the same July Fourth—1826—on which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents, died. And it also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, which, of course, Jefferson wrote. These are odd facts. Add to this the decisive Union victories of the Civil War won on the same day, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, which to our credit we do not use this holiday to commemorate, and July 4 does start to exert some mystic magnetic pull. When I was 18, I discovered Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, a disillusioned Vietnam vet’s memoir of war and its aftermath (later made into a movie starring Tom Cruise). This book vividly represented the view of America, ubiquitous in the 1960s and ’70s, as a dream gone awfully wrong. I digested it, believed it and let it shape me. Kovic took his birthday personally, as I do. Beyond the fireworks, parades, barbecues and summer picnics, July Fourth to me conjures up two simple flat things: the flag and the Declaration of Independence. (Three flat things, counting my eagle backdrop.) As someone born on the fourth, I have always taken America itself personally. It’s not rational. It’s just an accident that we share a birthday. But life is nothing but a collage of accidents, and a birthday coincidence can be a hook of meaning to hang one’s years on. I think George M. Cohan and Louis Armstrong had the same feeling. Feature photo courtesy of ginnerobot/Flickr Independence_Day_connects_bottom

by H. Roach

Jul 3, 2015

Who’s Down With TPP?

A trade partnership sounds like a good thing. Trade—good. Partnerships—good! Then why have Democrats been so worried about the Trans-Pacific Partnership bill? Why did President Obama team with John Boehner, of all people, to push the thing through? And why has the massive document detailing this agreement been kept under lock and key? Now that the bill has passed both the House and the Senate, a complete Trans-Pacific Partnership bill could be ready for the president to sign by Independence Day. Let’s talk about whether that’s such a good thing after all. Three weeks ago House Democrats rejected a measure to provide aid to workers displaced by global trade agreements. This was something of a surprise, since aid for workers has historically enjoyed Democrats’ support. At the time of this vote, however, the Trade Assistance Agreement (TAA) bill was attached to a component of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) called the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). The TAA had to pass in order for the rest of the trade package to get the green light. The TPA guarantees that trade deals be made by votes alone, without the possibility of later amendment; this “fast-track” option makes it easier for the president to negotiate with partner countries. Obama, Boehner and others saw it as a reassurance to these trading partners—which include Japan, Australia, Chile, Singapore and Vietnam—while opponents worried it amounted to a method for passing bad deals without the opportunity for later revision. But the initial defeat of the fast-track option wasn’t the final decision in this massive deal. Obama, Republican supporters of free trade and the 11 other countries ready to sign on to the accord—representing 40 percent of the world’s GDP—weren’t ready to give up just yet. Two weeks ago the fast-track option passed in the House on its own, unattached to the TAA, and last week the bill went back to the Senate, which had previously approved it when it was still attached to the TAA. The New York Times felt your confusion over all these acronyms, joking in a recent Twitter-friendly recap, “Mr. Obama really wants to get TPP, but he needs TPA and that requires TAA. Democrats like TAA but will kill it to block TPA. #LOL.” Trans_Pacific_connects_sideSo, will the TPP ultimately be good or bad? One model for how it could turn out is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. Some argue that the F in NAFTA has really meant “free for corporations to do anything they want.” Under this agreement, tariffs were incrementally eliminated, new markets were opened, and cheap labor became more and more available. Most of this stuff, this argument goes, has been great for corporations but not so good for everybody else. The Council on Foreign Relations reports mixed results: “One lofty, unrealized promise of NAFTA was that the treaty would narrow the gap between the per capita incomes of Mexico, the United States and Canada. Per capita income in Mexico rose at an annual average of 1.2 percent over the past two decades…far slower than Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and Peru.” Yet experts claim trade liberalization also “led to a dramatic reduction in Mexican prices for clothes, televisions and food, which helps offset slow income growth.” And in what the Council calls an “intangible benefit” of NAFTA, Mexico “has adopted orthodox economic management practices and is no longer prone to crises.” All clear now? At least Hillary Clinton’s recent hedging on the TPP may make more sense to you. Not being part of the 1 percent myself, I am concerned about a few key aspects. For one thing, the secrecy surrounding the talks. As CNN reported, “Only members of Congress and staffers with security clearance can access [the classified document]. And they can’t make copies or even carry their own handwritten notes out the door.” WikiLeaks has managed to publish a few of the bill’s 30 chapters, including the one on environmental protection, which is troubling. “With the exception of fisheries, trade in ‘environmental’ goods and the disputed inclusion of other multilateral agreements, the chapter appears to function as a public relations exercise,” WikiLeaks notes. There are no binding rules about environmental issues, only good-faith agreements, and we have some experience with how those go. Finally, negotiations about intellectual property could have far-reaching consequences in an unexpected area: prescription drug prices. In January Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote in The New York Times, “If big pharmaceutical companies hold sway—as the leaked documents indicate they do—the TPP could block cheaper generic drugs from the market. Big Pharma’s profits would rise, at the expense of the health of patients and the budgets of consumers and governments.” And trade agreements, Stiglitz warns, “are typically far more difficult to alter or repeal than domestic laws.” Once the TPA is officially in place, partner countries will try to rush to negotiate a provisional deal by late July, before the U.S. Congress takes its August vacation. If that happens, a Pacific trade pact could be up for a vote in Congress in December. Other countries, of course, would still need their own lawmakers’ approval, but Obama’s success on this issue marks another pillar of his legacy and sets the scene for future debate on the next desired deal: a transatlantic trade partnership between the U.S. and the European Union that’s poised to make headlines in 2016. Let’s hope the TPP sets a good, responsible example. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Trans_Pacific_connects_bottom

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jul 2, 2015

“And Then They Were Upon Her”: Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery”

Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery” debuted in the June 26, 1948, issue of The New Yorker. By July, Jackson had been forced to upgrade her mailbox to the largest one available in the Bennington, Vermont, post office—and she and the postmaster were no longer on speaking terms. Jackson had once daydreamed about uplifting readers with her stories; far from being uplifted, the readers of “The Lottery” were mailing Jackson letters she claimed to be “downright scared to open.”In Private Demons, her biography of Jackson, Judy Oppenheimer describes the public’s reaction to “The Lottery” as “instant and cataclysmic. Nothing in the magazine before or since would provoke such an unprecedented outpouring of fury, horror, rage, disgust and intense fascination.” Picking up the mail gave Jackson an “active feeling of panic.” She never anticipated this unusual tale would cause such a furor, but her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, knew it was “something special” and praised his wife for writing a “real masterpiece.” Today “The Lottery” is one of America’s most anthologized short stories, but 67 years ago New Yorker readers had no idea what to expect. It begins innocently enough: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day.” Three hundred or so people in an unnamed village have gathered at 10 o’clock for an annual lottery. The whole event takes less than two hours, which allows the villagers “to get home for noon dinner.” The head of each household draws a white slip of paper from a battered old box for each person in his family; whichever family draws the slip bearing a black dot draws again. The family member who picks the black dot is stoned to death. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!” screams the lottery’s victimized “winner.” The story doesn’t lack for speed, and Jackson ends it simply with “and then they were upon her.” ShirleyJacksonJackson claimed the New Yorker editors requested only one revision to her piece: changing the date of the lottery to June 27, to coincide with the day following the issue’s publication. But “The Lottery” provoked hundreds of canceled subscriptions, along with the angry letters, setting a record for the magazine. As Joyce Carol Oates has noted, “Jackson’s story suggested that ordinary Americans—like the readers of The New Yorker, in fact—are not so very different from the lynch-mob mentality of the Nazis.” The puzzled Jackson kept all the letters—which derided her story as “gruesome,” “nauseating” and a “new low in human viciousness”—in a big scrapbook that is now archived at the Library of Congress. She categorized the remarks in three ways, “bewilderment, speculation and plain old-fashioned abuse.” The latter are the most fun to read: “Tell Miss Jackson to stay out of Canada.” “Who is Shirley Jackson? Cannot decide whether she is a genius or a female and more subtle version of Orson Welles.” “We are fairly well-educated and sophisticated people, but we feel that we have lost all faith in the truth of literature.” “Was the sole purpose just to give the reader a nasty impact?” “I will never buy The New Yorker again. I resent being tricked into reading perverted stories like ‘The Lottery.’” “We would expect something like this in Esquire, but NOT in The New Yorker.” Ha! Jackson is having a moment in 2015. The novel Shirley, by Susan Scarf Merrell, gives a fictional account of the writer’s tempestuous marriage to Hyman. Norton is poised to publish a new biography by Ruth Franklin. For the first time in years, all 12 of Jackson’s books are in print. And most important for her legion of fans, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays and Other Writings will be published in August. Perhaps a new “Lottery” awaits in this book of previously unpublished, uncollected materials. Readers who associate Jackson mainly with “The Lottery” and such macabre novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle may be stunned to learn she also published two collections of humorous magazine stories, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, about running her household of four children. The Lottery mediumJackson’s lecture about the aftermath of “The Lottery,” published as “Biography of a Story” in 1960, explains, “It was not my first published story, nor my last, but I have been assured over and over that had it been the only story I ever wrote or published, there would be people who would not forget my name.” Despite insisting that she was “out of the lottery business for good,” Jackson, until her premature death at the age of 48, in 1965, was constantly asked by well-meaning fans and friends to explain the ending of her most famous story. She once snapped at a close friend who innocently posed the question, “It’s there. I’m not going to comment any further; you either get it or you don’t, that’s it.” Even her own parents were bewildered. “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,” Jackson’s mother wrote. “It does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?” Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Colin J. Warnock

Jun 26, 2015

Mediander CultureTalk: Rachel Dolezal

At first glance, the Rachel Dolezal story seems like something out of The Onion, the satirical newspaper that once ran the headline “Judge Rules White Girl Will Be Tried as Black Adult.” In other words, fake. But while outlandish, Dolezal’s story is no spoof, and her actions have provoked a lot of disdain and hurt feelings. They range from embarrassment and betrayal to questioning her mental state.

by Chalaire Miller

Jun 23, 2015