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Land Of Hype And Glory: Post-September 11, This Independence Day Will Eclipse All That's Gone Before

30 June 2002

When Samuel Johnson said that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, he probably wasn't thinking of crocheted Stars and Stripes doilies or a Kate Spade bag in red, white and blue. For anyone who wants to flaunt American colors this Independence Day there's plenty more where that came from -- Ralph Lauren's limited edition flag teddy bear (a steal at 530), for instance, or Tupperware's Fourth of July dessert cups. America: A Patriotic Primer, a new best-selling children's title by Lynne Cheney, wife of vice- president Dick Cheney, is flying off the shelves in bookshops across the country. Meanwhile newspapers run adverts for Longs Drugs, a US institution: 'We will be open on July 4!' they shriek. American shops are crammed with more sentimental patriotic schlock than for any Independence Day in living memory. Inside one of Longs' huge shops, gaudy Christmas-like decorations are draped from aisle to aisle - red, white and blue, of course - and stacked at the front are boxes of Marshmallow Peeps: star-shaped, artificially flavored and flecked with yet more red, white and blue.

For many, however - especially in New York - July 4 will be solemn this year, especially with the FBI's warning of a possible terrorist attack. But anyone wanting to get out of the city can still fly the flag: why not head to the beach with a Mickey Mouse Americana shoulder bag and a Stars and Stripes deck chair, towel and bikini?

Of course, not everything is actually so glowingly good. Consumer and investor optimism have hit an all-time low in the months since the attacks, confidence in government is down, and there is almost daily news about more fraudulent behavior on the part of yet another erstwhile success story. WorldCom admits to 2.5 billion in hidden expenses just as doubts are being raised about the role of Martha Stewart, the home decorating guru and billionairess, in the ImClone insider trading scandal.

According to a new study by the University of Illinois, nearly half of US public libraries surveyed said the FBI or another government agency had requested details of borrower records in the past 10 months. Such information can be gathered under the controversial Patriot Act, which critics say curtails civil rights. Meanwhile satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has fallen to 52%, according to pollsters Gallup. After September 11 the measure jumped, reaching a pre-Christmas high of 70%. The current level is a post-attack low.

But if the gung-ho patriotism is only skin-deep, it doesn't mean the good citizens of America are turning internationalist, or that they have been humbled in the face of seemingly intractable problems such as the Middle East or global warming. On the contrary, cinemas are showing feelgood movies such as The Sum Of All Fears, which stars Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman as agents hunting down terrorists planning to detonate a nuclear device at the Super Bowl. And two particularly patriotic films - last year's war epic Pearl Harbor and the Independence Day musical 1776 - are coming to DVD just in time for the glorious Fourth.

Even the New York fire and police departments - fashion labels of choice since September 11 - have officially plunged into American-sized selling. For the first time, salesmen for merchandise licensed by the city departments turned up at a trade show this last week.

Independence Day, the most patriotic of American holidays, has always been a time to buy cut-price garden furniture, barbecue grills and swimsuits, to get drunk or to jaw about the price of gas for the summer car holiday. There are family 'cookouts' with hot dogs, macaroni, watermelon and ice cream.

Even the smallest towns have a fireworks displays and Fourth of July parade with girls in red, white and blue sequined outfits twirling batons. And there's always someone dressed as Uncle Sam. This year the crowds at public events - parades, concerts and firework displays - are expected to be larger than at any time since the Bicentennial in 1976.

Security will be tighter than ever before too: FBI offices around the country are already on high alert - and, with more than one million people expected in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, gun-toting police are to guard historic landmarks such as the Liberty Bell. In Boston, a crowd of more than 500,000 people is expected and access to events will be restricted. Hey, even the coolers holding the beer will be searched.

New York's official event will be a far larger and notably more solemn occasion than usual. New mayor Michael Bloomberg has had to lift a fireworks ban, in place since September 11, for an event billed 'A Time For Heroes'. More than 20,000 fireworks will be set off from barges moored in the East River.

'There is a surge of real patriotism in America. Heroism has been redefined for many of us and liberty and freedom have a new immediacy,' explains Robin Hall, the event organizer. 'Given what is going on in the world, this will be a very special year for our fireworks, because the true meaning of the celebration will resonate more with people.'

In Washington, a double fence is being thrown up around the Mall, a huge grassy area from where picnicking crowds will watch the capital's official fireworks display. The widows of the generals killed in the September 11 attack on the Pentagon will review the festivities - but revelers will have to pass through checkpoints first.

Oddly enough, a ruckus over patriotism broke out last week - not because of the tone of the celebrations but because an appeals court ruled that one of America's most beloved institutions, the Pledge of Allegiance, was illegal. The phrase 'under one God', part of the pledge chanted by children at the start of each school day across America, violates the constitutional separation of church and state, ruled the court at the culmination of a suit brought by an atheist father. 'God-Awful!' screamed the conservative New York Post, which is selling 'Land of the Free, Home of the Brave' T-shirts and mugs.

On CNN, news anchor Connie Chung could barely contain herself when she interviewed the godless father himself, one Michael Newdew. 'Are you proud to be an American?' she asked, her voice dripping with poison. 'Aren't you concerned about the impact on your daughter?'

This July 4, with patriotism and commercialism as central to the American way as ever, the Land of Hype and Glory is in full swing. There are some lower notes too, as might befit an America at war. Nowhere is that clearer than in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The city has cancelled its mock second world war air-sea battle on the Mississippi River, a fixture for the last 15 Independence Days. The wargames, said the city fathers, would be too much of a reminder of the real thing.

Ros Davidson, San Francisco
Published in The Sunday Herald (Scotland) © 2002 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd

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