Like many Americans, we New Yorkers have a grand fireworks tradition for closing out our Independence Day celebrations. Fireworks burst all over America, and here in New York, crowds love to gather along the East River (sometimes the Hudson) for the great spectacle.
Others of us gather at parties to watch the fireworks, or we, too, go to the riverside, and it’s all great fun. And those of us living in the typical tall buildings here in New York have a special treat, for many of our high apartment houses have some sort of gathering spot on top. Sometimes it’s a formal, well laid-out space for sun-bathing, open-air suppers, and the like. Other buildings have just an open paved or tiled rooftop where people can gather, and on July 4th, it’s a true New York treat.
Well, that is, for everyone else. Not for us this year, as our beautiful Roof Garden – up 28 floors – has been closed since May, and will be closed through September. The workmen climbing up and down the sides of the building need our top space for their equipment as they go about doing the pointing on the brick facade of the building.
It was that change in situation that got us to thinking about Ukraine and its citizens. [And, as a point of reference, I’ve learned that we say “Ukraine,” not “The Ukraine.” The latter was how the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times. Now that it is a country, a nation, and a recognized state, it’s just “Ukraine.”]
That and a couple of other bits of recognition came to us tonight as the noise of fireworks boomed out.
For one thing, being inside the apartment (where we could not see the fireworks), not watching the display gave us a slightly different perspective. In not seeing it, we could only hear the sound of the fireworks, and it was terrifying. And, with the citizens of Ukraine – on our minds a great deal – we could only react by thinking about what such sounds mean in Kyiv (where I understand the Russian attacks have returned, after an earlier let-up) and in the cities of the east where the attacks and the death and destruction continue to be over-whelming.
Then we got to talking about refugees, now spread throughout Europe, and we couldn’t help but be impressed (and certainly very touched) by Ken Burns’ Opinion Video in our July 4th New York Times: America is Failing Refugees, and Itself. In the video, Russian twins Alexander and Yevgeny Vindman, brought to America as four-year-olds after their mother’s death, talk about the refugee crisis. Their father brought them here, fleeing Ukraine, with them, and the two boys both grew up in the United States. Their careers were in the United States Army, with Alexander becoming a lieutenant colonel and director for European and Russian affairs for the National Security Council (he was also a key witness at the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump). Yevgeny would become a colonel in the Army and served as deputy legal adviser for the National Security Council. From their perspective (and it is clearly sincere and well described), they see the need for a stronger response from the United States to the refugee crisis.
In introducing the 6-minute video, Ken Burns wrote that in recent months, as the Vindmans’ homeland has come under siege by Russian forces, he reunited with the brothers to make the video. In it, the brothers argue that the refugee crises in Ukraine and elsewhere represent a critical, worldwide issue. They make the case that the situation is an emergency and they plead for a stronger response from the Biden administration, including not just fully restoring a refugee system gutted by the Trump administration but expanding it further.
After viewing the Ken Burns video, we go back to listening to the fireworks explosions and continuing our conversation, and the topic of the mess in America – yet once again – comes into our conversation. Of course we start, as we often do, with the massive polarization our political system and all our fears about what comes next. We also found ourselves thinking about the January 6 Committee Hearings, and especially last Tuesday’s, when Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff, testified. In her very low-key but commanding way (“riveting” might be a better adjective), Ms. Hutchinson shared with all Americans her fears about our future as she spoke about the January 6 insurrection: “It was unpatriotic,” she said. “It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie.”
And now Monday: The Fourth of July mass shootings, with more than three dozen victims at the Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois (at least six deaths). Another 57 victims were shot in Chicago alone, with nine deaths, and multiple other mass shootings in South Carolina, Washington, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, and, yes, in New York City.
What is happening to us as a society? Are we becoming victims, like the citizens of Ukraine? Or is our victimization something different? Is it self-imposed? And if so, why? And, as important as anything else we think about: When we ask “what’s going on?” what can we do about it?
If anything, social optimist and positivist that I’m reputed to be, I’m not at all sure we can do anything. Yes, I’m a great fan of the Aeneid (and Les Troyans, the wonderful opera by Berlioz based on Virgil’s great classic), but there are some serious disconnects between us caught up in our American situation, and that magnificent story. Indeed, I’m not sure we are being really helped when we try to make a comparison but maybe it helps to try. Of course we don’t have a single Cassandra constantly warning us (but we do have multiple prophets – and all of them telling us to fix things or our society will perish – just look at the opinion columns in any newspaper or online journal). We also don’t have hoards of enemy Greeks attacking us, but we do have the nay-sayers among our own citizens and politicians. Are they (including the determined members of “Trump World,” as mentioned in the threatening messages sent to Cassidy Hutchinson before her testimony) our conquering Greeks? And where is our Aeneas? Is there anyone who can build a new “Rome” from our America? Or have we come too far and created a democracy that is too complicated to save?
No. That won’t happen (the optimist in me always comes out!) but I am not all sure how it’s all going to get fixed. I wish I knew what we could do to make things right. I just hope we can.