America’s no cliche

I remember with a nostalgic mix of fondness and horror my early days of newspapering, when working on holidays and holiday eves was more often the case than not. These are the journalistic workdays when the anniversary syndrome becomes overpowering. A reporter may be sometimes forced to write a story commemorating the 45th anniversary of VJ Day, for example; but legions of reporters absolutely will be tasked with writing yuletide story after yuletide story — often whole yuletide series of 1o or 12 or 15 stories — each and every holiday season. Usually, these kinds of assignments result in stories that range from utter dreck all the way up to cliched filler. But sometimes, something charming occurs. One December, a reporter friend happened to look in the Houston phone book and find a woman named “Merry Christmas.” No, not Mary Christmas — Merry. The woman was happy to describe a childhood, adolescence and early adulthood of embarrassment and constant explanation of the reason her father (and I think I remember it was the father) named her Merry. It was a good story that reflected on the season without wallowing in it — and lo and behold, very shortly thereafter Merry Christmas of Houston, Texas, appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, giving her 15 minutes of about the biggest sort of temporary fame you could get back then.

The 4th of July, of course, is almost as powerful as Christmas in terms of its ability to force young daily journalists working the holiday to write meaningless drivel that reminds people they are having a holiday. The emotional cliches for Christmas revolve around doing good for the poor; for Independence Day, of course, the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the flag are front and center. Which is why I bring you this piece from the L.A. Times (“This barn is red, white and viewed”) about a barn that is, yes, painted to resemble an American flag. The story has all the hallmarks of the senseless holiday assignment: Nothing new has actually happened (the barn having been painted this way for years); no one has anything remotely controversial to say about the non-event under discussion; and there is an emotional undercurrent that calls on readers to affirm their common heritage. Though it’s a bit over the top, isn’t this wonderful? the article seems to ask. It’s a question that I can’t help answering with another: In what way?

Anyway, despite the preceding paragraph, it happens that I am a genuinely patriotic person. I think all Fourth of July barbeques should include a reading of the Declaration of Independence; the idea may seem hokey at first, but once you have done it, I can assure that you will feel better than you have in quite some time. At the least, you will be reminded that the idea of America is fundamentally revolutionary and egalitarian, and that it will survive every attempt — journalistic, commercial, political and other — to turn it into emotional pabulum.  There is a reason kids were (and are) chanting American ideas and ideals in the streets of Cairo. It isn’t because they read about the Founding Fathers in holiday editions of their local newspapers.

Finally, to show that I am not 100 percent averse to displays of patriotism, I have inserted a few examples of the many ways Santa Barbarans decorate for the Fourth. May your fireworks all be brilliant.

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