Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Saturday, July 4 - Independence Day

Jun 30: In his appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Fauci warns that while the current daily number of new cases in the United States is hovering around 40,000, that could reach as high as 100,000 new cases per day given the outbreak’s current trajectory. The EU announces it will reopen its boarders to 14 countries. The U.S. is not included.

Jul 1: The U.S. sees a record 52,788 increase in COVID-cases. Seattle police clear out the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) and arrest 32 people who had remained in the protest zone. Richmond, Virginia, authorities remove a statue of Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Russian voters approve a constitutional change that will allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. Trump criticizes New York City officials for their plan to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue in front of the Trump Hotel. He says the slogan is a “symbol of hate.”

Jul 2: The U.S. sees a record 55,220 increase in COVID-cases. Several states, including California and Indiana, postpone or reverse plans to reopen their economies, as the United States records 50,000 new cases of COVID-19—the largest one-day spike since the pandemic’s onset. New Mexico also extends the state’s emergency public health order through July 15 and implements a $100 fine for those not adhering to required mask usage. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, confirms an Associated Press report that some service members were issued bayonets when they were sent to Washington, D.C., early last month to respond to protests against racial injustice and police brutality. 

Jul 3: The U.S. sees a record 57,497 increase in COVID-cases. Two police officers in Aurora, Colo., are fired after one resigns. The three had taken and shared photos reenacting a chokehold used in the death of Elijah McClain. Trump gives a speech at the foot of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, where many are not wearing masks. He rails against “cancel culture” and “far-left fascism.” He says that the efforts to take down Confederate monuments is a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” Trump says “angry mobs” are not only trying to “deface our sacred memorials,” but “unleash a violent wave of crime in our cities.”

Jul 4: At an Independence Day address at the White House, Trump says his administration is, “in the process of defeating the radical left” amid nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, which have included efforts to remove numerous statues and monuments. “We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedoms.” Bars reopen in England as lockdown restrictions are eased. Florida sees a surge in COVID cases. One person is killed and another hospitalized after a man drives a  car onto a closed freeway during a protest against police brutality in Seattle, Washington.  Kanye West, the rapper, says he is running for President.

From the cutting room floor...

It was July 4, 1992, when the real meaning of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” hit me. My friends and I sat with thousands of people in filthy green vinyl lawn chairs, watching the fireworks break over the downtown skyline. My feet sank into the muddy grass on the banks of the river. Everyone tuned their boomboxes (we said that word unironically) into the FM station blaring the patriotic soundtrack choreographed to the explosion show. Then Springsteen’s sharp snare pierced the air. A cheer rang out so loud it gave you goosebumps—we all knew the lyrics: “Booooooorn in the You Ess Aaaaeeee; I was boooooorn in the You Esssss Aaaaeeeee nawh.”

But it was not until that night that I really heard them. The song is a testimony to the trap of American poverty, to the expendability of the poor and the hollow patriotism that launches fireworks and lauds our fighting soldiers but then forgets about them as soon as they come home. “Y’end up like a dog that’s been beat too much.” I turned to see my friend Bill singing at the top of his lungs, “Put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man.” A firework popped in the clear night sky. “Like me!” Bill yelled, face still contorted, Springsteen-esque. Just a week or two earlier he had received the news he would ship out to somewhere in East Asia. It hit me so hard, I didn’t hear the rest of the fireworks.

I realized that when we sing the chorus, “Born in the U.S.A.,” we are in fact singing a dirge to the death of our faith in American exceptionalism. The country that supposedly stands for freedom and justice more than anywhere else that has ever existed in the blood-soaked history of our species—”No nation has done more to advance the human condition,” said Trump at Mount Rushmore last night—nevertheless drops an M16 in the hands of its poorest young people and sends them off to do its dirty work slaughtering some other vilified race. When our soldiers come home, having served the cause, they find a “thank you for your service” and little else. This might happen to Bill, too, I thought. I had been singing “Born in the U.S.A.” like it was “America the Beautiful” all through the Reagan and Bush, Sr. years. But it’s America the neglectful. America the empty-well-wisher.

On the way home from the fireworks, I told Bill to grab the Born in the USA cassette out of the glove box. “Is he pissing on the flag?!” I asked about the album art, with new eyes. “What?! Uh, maybe,” laughed Bill. Then in one fluid motion, he whipped out his Zippo, flicked it off his jeans like he always did, and lit a Camel, tossing the Springsteen case on the ground. “‘ThunderRoad’s’ better.” He didn’t care about my revelation. He was still reveling in the fireworks and thinking about how we could get high before he shipped out.[1]

This year, though … the Fourth of July offers a somewhat different experience this year. From my house, I hear dozens of small fireworks displays going off in neighborhoods and backyards in every direction. The howling of dogs and the scream of distant sirens fills what little air is not filled with pops, fizzles, and bangs. The individual displays, and the accompanying howling and siren wailing behind them, last for hours. I suppose that social distancing has meant that instead of an all-together civic celebration of our American-ness, we’re huddled in small groups, blowing up gunpowder in vast quantities right over our neighbors’ yards. I’ve never heard so many fireworks. And it’s not just tonight–this cacophony started a few nights ago. My poor dog is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Fires seem a real possibility. But I’m more concerned that, though I’ve seen houses and yards stuffed with friends and family, most of the white people I see aren’t wearing masks (though other non-whites do seem to be).

So pandemic Fourth of July is … different. At the same time, however, the contradiction between what our country is versus what we wish it could be, is still as sharply apparent as it was decades ago when Springsteen penned that anthem. Are we good with what it is right now? Are we willing to stand on the steps of our Gilded Age mansions, semiautomatic rifle drawn, to keep it? Or do we think that something dramatically better could lie before us, even if it requires marching and shouting and being coated with pepper spray? (Ha—this framing seems too reductionistic and sermonizing even as I write it. Let me try again.)

There are so many among us who feel that the status quo is not working for them. Nevertheless, they fear change. Others vilify what they don’t understand, whether the status quo is good for them or not. Ironically, if I were looking for patriotism in America today—if I were looking for examples of people trying to make the world less like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A. and more like “America the Beautiful”—I would point to those protestors who are out on the streets every night demanding that this nation live up to its promises. The marchers are taking blows from the police because they believe in the possibility of change. They believe that the future can be better. There is another group gathered around Mount Rushmore to hear their leader unveil the latest edition of Stephen Miller’s “American Carnage” speech. They fear change. They fear loss. And they do see carnage in their cities as their young promising men come back from Afghanistan with no job prospects or drift off to larger cities where they encounter (but rarely befriend) people from very different backgrounds. They see the rich get richer while they get left behind.[2] But, of course, they have been seeing that since the steel plants closed in the 1980s—around the time Springsteen wrote those lyrics. What’s changed is that more people, even white people, are recognizing how disproportionately the pain is distributed in America. People on the streets are asking people watching the marches on TV to learn a different version of American history. Indeed it’s this demand, that childlike false history enshrined in marble monuments needs to be replaced by a mature, historically realistic view of America as not angelically insulated from corruption and mismanagement of power, that Trump denounces in his Mount Rushmore speech.

The Fourth of July always seems to bring this debate over the status quo and the way we got to it into sharp relief. And two events are making that contrast even starker. On Thursday, the NFL agreed to play “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” nicknamed the “Black National Anthem,” before the Kansas City Chiefs versus Houston Texans game on September 10.[3] Additionally, some players in the NFL have agreed to wear on their jerseys the names of those killed by police—a fulfillment of Colin Kaepernick’s protest that led to his blackballing by the league in 2016. Like clockwork, boycotting the NFL became a thing on social media today. (Just wait until they change the Washington Redskins to something less nineteenth-century.) And, almost at the same moment that the largely white crowds dispersed the largely native American protesters in order to gather at Mount Rushmore last night, Disney premiered an original-cast performance recorded four years ago of the highly decorated musical Hamilton on their Disney+ app.[4] We decided to watch it while the explosions rattled outside.

I watched this musical with altered eyes tonight. When it debuted in 2015, Hamilton represented a triumphant recasting of the nation’s founding by an ethnically diverse cast singing in modern vernacular. Having Washington, Jefferson, Aaron Burr and others played by men and women of color felt revolutionary. The recorded performance that we are watching tonight is from the summer of 2016. It was filmed when the first serious female candidate for president looked to be a shoo-in. It seems almost quaint now, from the “before times,” as we are now apparently calling them. Unlike “Born in the USA,” it is hard to misread Hamilton.

It is hard to overstate just how much cultural penetration Lin Manuel Miranda’s work has had. Even the neo-con John Bolton lifted the title of his tell-all The Room Where It Happened from the Aaron Burr character’s central song of political envy. It is clear now, however, that Hamilton is merely the first verse of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”–the hopeful, uplifting, look-at-what-we-can-do verse.

Missing even from Hamilton is a full-throated critique of the deep contradictions in the American genesis: a supposedly Christian quest to extend white property rights by killing or displacing the original occupants of the continent and by enslaving labor from West Africa. For crying out loud, our country’s national anthem is based on Francis Scott Key’s poem that glorified the inability of the “hireling and slave” to escape the “terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” In a country that cannot even face up to these historical facts, perhaps there isn’t yet a stomach for deeper understanding of our complicity than what Hamilton gives us.[5]


[1] Pointing out, usually with glee, that conservatives don’t know the lyrics well enough to know that it’s an anti-nationalistic song, is still an annual pastime two-and-a-half decades after the song was released. Robyn Pennacchia, “36 Years Later, Conservatives Finally Read The Lyrics To ‘Born In The USA,’” Wonkette, July 3, 2020,

[2] Our Foreign Staff, “Donald Trump Attacks ‘Cancel Culture’ in Fiery Mount Rushmore Speech,” The Telegraph, July 4, 2020,

[3] Jason Reid, “Source: NFL Plans to Play Black Anthem Week 1,”, July 2, 2020,

[4] Future historians of technology: for the whole family to watch, we had to download it onto an Android phone via the Disney+ app and then screen mirror to the LG television because, even in 2020, there was so much lag in streaming directly. Also, so-called smart TVs just aren’t that smart.

[5] Jason Johnson, “Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem,” The Root, July 4, 2016,

Read more

“President Trump’s full speech at Mount Rushmore” USA Today, June 3, 2020.

“Native Americans protest Trump’s Mt. Rushmore rally,” PBS NewsHour, June 4, 2020.

Natasha Alford, “Why we “Lift Every Voice and Sing” | The story behind the ‘black national anthem’,” theGrio, October 7, 2017.

“How ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ made Bruce Springsteen a political figure,” Politico, June 4, 2014.

Woolf, Christopher. “Historians Disagree on Whether ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ Is Racist.” The World from PRX, August 30, 2016.

*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

National Park Service. “Charles E. Rushmore – Mount Rushmore National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service),” April 7, 2020.
Read, Richard. “Scientists Say WHO Ignores the Risk That Coronavirus Floats in Air as Aerosol.” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2020.
Morawska, Lidia, and Donald K Milton. “It Is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Clinical Infectious Diseases 71, no. 9 (July 6, 2020): 2311–13.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.