I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy: A Radical Fourth of July

July 4, 2012, 9:58 am

What a marvelous notion it was, in 1776, that one did not have to rely on God, King or a news anchor to know in one’s heart that the existing political system was wrong.  That said, for a reading of the Declaration of Independence by some of my favorite reporters and news anchors, go here. (Hat tip to MOTheR: longtime readers of this blog will recognize that I am referring to Mother of the Radical.)

The Republican Party Platform Committee might want to pause over the section read by Nina Totenberg. In enumerating the colonists’ grievances against George III, the Founders (otherwise known as the earliest Band of Bloggers) note that:

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

Among the appropriations of lands that followed the emergence of the new nation were those inhabited by the people of Mexico; among the policies that the nation then established was the power to restrict immigration.

But I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer! I’m from Philadelphia, after all, and no one celebrates this holiday like Philadelphians! My father hung the flag every year, like the Eagle Scout he was, and I will too:

In addition to a time to recall our political forebears, and the far larger group of those without a formal political voice in the eighteenth century, the Fourth of July is a time of rowdiness and joy. It is a time when all descendants of immigrants can celebrate the principles of the founders, even while mounting a fair criticism of the ways those principles have been carried out over the centuries.

One of my favorite flag-wavers is “the man who owned Broadway,” George M. Cohan (1878-1942).  Cohan was either born on July 3 or July 4, depending on who you believe, but naturally, as a master of the patriotic jingle, he always celebrated his birthday on Independence Day. At some time during a childhood spent obsessively watching classic Hollywood movies on UHF, I discovered the 1942 biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney (a legendary hoofer who had to speak songs rather than sing them.) From that time onward I became hooked on Cohan’s bouncy patriotic schmaltz, which to a child raised during the Vietnam war, seemed to herald a time of wars fought on principle rather than greed. Not inconsequentially, I also became hooked on Cagney: did my initial viewing of the noir-ish, Oedipal White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949) plant the first seeds of this book?

Who knows? All I can say is don’t assume that children consuming popular culture of any kind necessarily runs counter to the crafting of an intellectual life. So without further ado, happy Fourth of July, and here’s Little Johnny, “the boy they have to beat:”

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