Between now and the turn of the century, 16 eastern and southeastern states will celebrate 200 years of statehood. Here in the hinterlands, seven more states will have their 100th birthday. Then there will be just five state centennials left, with Alaska and Hawaii as late desserts in 2059—when many East Coast states will be close to 300 years old. Every day, in the midst of what some people persist in calling a recession, states, cities, and counties throw restraint to the winds and give themselves exuberant birthday parties. Why?
One answer could be that such celebrations are good for us. State governments, strapped for money, can’t vote much into state centennial commission coffers, especially here in the Upper Midwest where our tax base is falling. Somehow, though, the beat goes on. Businesspeople who can tie sales and special products to the festivities, and artists and arts organizations who, for once, can rely on emotional impetus to guarantee sales of centennial books and paintings, are the ones who really profit from a huge centennial blowout. During local celebrations, real people and businesses always seem to do better than amorphous government “entities” (makes government sound like either a god or a ghost). Community anticipation is easily sustained for several years before the event, and then there’s a whole 12 months of partying, where people buy, on impulse, things they ordinarily wouldn’t touch.
But this urge to acquire souvenirs only points to the real motive behind a big local celebration: At home, in our states and towns, we’re all we have left—and proud of it.
This feeling is stronger for adults than for uninitiated teens, who love the glamour of national media blitzes and attend corny local centennial events smirking self-consciously—but always attend. (The importance of initiation becomes clear when we think of fraternal lodge celebrations, where other townspeople, wives, and kids—i.e., those who know none of the secrets—aren’t even invited, yet the air is thick with brotherhood.) For grown-ups, the most touching advertising, at least for community events, is local, clumsy, and aimed not at hammering community spirit into people but at directing that spirit which is assumed to be there.
A glitzy national celebration can’t come close to moving us this way; the Statue of Liberty gala was something we watched—if we happened to be at home. Even heartfelt patriotism is different from a love of community, at least in this country (in some parts of Europe they’re almost the same thing, or used to be). We love America as we love anything vast and splendid: broadly, with broad disregard for its flaws. But cheap talk about “the important governing role of the American people” notwithstanding, we also know that the American people don’t carry much weight in Washington. We are 240 million individuals at the mercy of a distant Congress and Supreme Court and President we don’t know, have never been to coffee or a potluck supper with. Let’s face it—our cards and calls to Washington, and even our votes, really don’t make much difference unless there are thousands of them. Washington would like to be America’s brains and conscience, and it has High Principles on its mind, not us here trying to lead commonplace lives.
By the nature of things, we are allowed instead to define the character of our locale, to watch our state or town change—or be saved from Title change—by our efforts. The new library? I helped to vote it into reality. Blue laws, pornography laws, Sunday liquor, taxes, parks, the election of legislators to our modest assembly: My vote counts in all these instances. Those in my group are like me, family. A local or state centennial or bicentennial is just a family birthday party.
Across America, states, towns, and counties are throwing parties for themselves, happy in spite of those Washington hooligans. The turn of the century casts its shadow back across us, as soothsayers try to guess what life will be like on the other side of that great imaginary divide. All we know, here, at home, with friends and family, is that we’re not getting older, we’re getting better, with each celebration. Perhaps as states we can enlighten the District of Columbia—or force it to secede.
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