Well, then. It’s the Fourth of July. In 2022.
If you’re like me, then you’ve got a lot of friends who have spent the past week and a half in fear. Well, probably longer than that, what with the ongoing pandemic and the ongoing insurrection and the ongoing climate crisis and the ongoing inflation. But apart from all of that, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Dobbs Vs. Jackson, overturning the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe Vs. Wade, has sent most of the people I know into a tailspin. There’s plenty of reasons why, of course. There’s a massive uncertainty brought about by the reversal of fifty years’ of law built on that earlier precedent. There’s an even more massive fear that, for a whole host of potential reasons, people will die as a direct result of the ruling. But looking further down the road – and this is the part that’s really causing my friends grief, on this anniversary weekend of our nation’s founding – there’s the realization that the language of this court ruling is specifically crafted to justify striking down a whole host of other rulings, and rights that have come with them. To gay marriage. Availability of contraception. Potentially even interracial marriage. And on this Fourth of July, if your friends are like mine, they’re in shock of the notion of this nation, founded on the sacred notion of individual rights, actually planning to take those rights away. That’s not the America I was raised to believe in, we hear again and again. It’s not who we are.
But, if you stop and think about it, it is.
It’s not who we think we are, of course; it doesn’t jibe with our professed values, the national origin story we’ve been telling ourselves all through this weekend. The story of how we through off a corrupt monarchy and established an experiment in democracy, the story of how we dedicated ourselves to a society that respected the inherent rights of each of its individuals. That’s a more…complicated story than we usually like to pretend, but it’s still a valid story. But it’s not our only story. America is awash in stories – not all of them explicitly tied to our origins, but all of them helping to shape the values we actually hold today.
Stories of pioneers, prospectors, and adventurers who walked off into the wild, because it was self-evidently impossible for them to live in a larger society, and single-handedly conquered the wilderness to serve their own ends. Stories of superheroes who solve their problems by punching harder than anybody else. Sagas of Machiavellian politics done up in high fantasy drag, proclaiming “you win or you die.” YouTube video clips of gangster movies, repurposed into lectures on how to survive in business, in politics, or life in general. Sports story after sports story of invincible heroes achieving personal glory. Police story after police story following much the same narrative. A seemingly infinite set of variations on the myth of the rugged individualist, emerging triumphant in the never-ending struggle of life in a cruel universe, where existence is a zero-sum game of winners and losers.
So…is this a problem?
Well, the thing of it is, if you sincerely believe that life is a zero sum game, then any rights that anybody else might possess have somehow been granted at your expense. That’s the logical conclusion to draw, based on that belief – hey’ve been taken from you, somehow. And if this is your mindset, if you’ve convinced yourself – or been convinced – that this is how the world works, then of course you need to take rights away from other people, as a matter of your own survival.
This is nonsense, of course. It’s borderline psychotic. But so is the world we’re living in these days – and this, it seems to me, is a huge part of the reason why. And at the moment, it’s not getting any better.
So what the heck are we supposed to do?
Well, there are a lot of ways to fight back, and I strongly suggest you employ as many of them as possible right freaking now. But if you’re in the arts – and good heavens, if you’re not in the arts then why on earth are you reading an actor/playwright’s blog post on the Fourth of July – then you need to start paying much, much closer attention to the stories you’re telling. Making sure that what you’re putting out into the world, the mindset you’re buying into and endorsing, is truly what you want, and something that actually enforces your values. I am starting to see more of an awareness of this – at the Valdez Theatre Conference, which I attended last month, there was a whole slew of pieces which interrogated the stories we tell ourselves, and just how they’ve affected public life in this country. So, thankfully, I’m not alone in seeing this – but we need a hell of a lot more awareness, and we need it pretty damn soon.
So, here we are. Fourth of July, 2022. We can’t celebrate the birthday of our nation without telling the story of that birth, and what that means. So let’s make sure that story is a good one. A story that reflects well on the values of those telling it. A story that’s worthwhile.