Parade reveals what July 4th means to its publishers: an opportunity to promote mindless celebrity culture.

There’s no question that Parade, the largest circulation publication in the United States, is going to put July 4th front and center in an issue stuffed into newspapers for Independence Day delivery and use it as a platform for mouthing the most depoliticized platitudes about honoring our country.

But what Parade did this year is quite surprising, because its coverage of the country’s birth by declaration is so devoid of traditional patriotic and militaristic homilies that it transforms the holiday into a mere summer diversion.

The cover and three of the four articles in the issue dated July 4th are about Independence Day.  The cover features two pre-teen girls dressed in the kind of flag costumes and body paint that would have had right-wingers yelling ”damn commie hippy” back in the 60’s when I was their age.  The three articles are 1) a story about a town that has had an Independence Day parade since 1785; 2) an encomium to safe fireworks; and 3) a page of blurbs by famous people on “What July 4th Means to Me….”  The point of the other long article in the issue is to glorify immigrants who came from Ireland in an earlier age. 

Notice that in the July 4th features there is nothing substantive on our founders, nothing on sacrifice for country, shared values, the long road to freedom that started in 1776 and is ongoing, or even the current arguments about the relevancy of the ideas of the late 17th century to today’s post-Industrial society.  

I want to pay particular attention to the article titled “What July 4th Means to Me…” The secondary headline limits what the celebrities say to “Celebrities share their favorite holiday memories.”

And that’s just about all they do:  Seven actors, all of whom have their photo showing and an imageless Buzz Aldrin (second human to walk on the moon) tell us what they used to do on July 4th as kids.  All but three give nothing but memories of a celebration that could be for any summer holiday, or even just a summer family picnic.  The five whose published statements make it seem as if they believe July 4th is just that three-day holiday that kicks off the sunshine season include four actors in faddish hot entertainments directed at teens and young adults, two from “The Twilight Saga,” one from “Glee” and one from “Gossip Girl;” the other is the aging actress Doris Roberts who has played supporting roles in situation comedies for decades.

The three celebrities who in their memories provide at least some comment on what the holiday means beyond “fun in the sun” represent left, center and right political views, but in ways that either conceal the opinion or drain it of all controversy.  Interestingly enough, the three tepid views are presented in a diagonal, from lower right for the “right-wing” view to upper left for the “left-wing” view, with the centrist in the middle:

  • Buzz Aldrin (lower right), astronaut, ends his memory of fireworks with “Our country is a guardian of liberty and freedom,” a vaguely militaristic and slightly right-wing statement because it is one of the excuses we always use when going to war, even a war over resources or geopolitical maneuvering.
  • Jimmy Smits (center), actor, mentions that “Dad and mom were very mindful of passing down the fact that coming to this country was an opportunity…”  It’s certainly a pro-immigration statement, but like the story on discovering Irish roots, non-threatening since Jimmy’s family comes from Puerto Rico, a long-time U.S. possession whose residents are considered citizens.  Virtually everyone living in the United States is the descendant of immigrants, and I think the centrist view is that’s okay, as long as your family has been here awhile.
  • Josh Brolin (upper left), actor, references A People’s History of the United States, lefty Howard Zinn’s wonderful history of the U.S. from the perspective or the poor, minorities and women. “It made me feel a sense of patriotism…” Brolin gushes.  Well done, Josh, to bring this important historian’s most accessible work to the millions who peruse Parade.  It is the only moment of real content in Parade’s coverage of the 4th.  As a statement from the left, however, it is as innocuous and as easy-to-miss as what Smits and Aldrin said, so plays into one of the ideological messages in the subtext.

What then does Parade communicate in the ideological subtext of this article and its broader coverage of the 2010 version of its July 4th coverage?  Two ideas, I think:

One of Parade’s hidden messages is that the only truly newsworthy celebrities are (white) actors.  It’s amazing that not even an athlete or pop musician makes the list, although I imagine that Kevin McHale of “Glee” does something musical.  What if instead of all these actors, the celebrity list included one or two elected officials (or the first lady or even Michelle’s mom), a scientist or two, a chief executive officer of a technology company, a classical or jazz musician and a popular literary writer such as Don DeLillo or Michael Chabon?  Maybe even add an unknown like someone who just won a “teacher of the year” award.  The selection of experts to use is one of the most important ideologically-tinged decisions that any writer or editor makes.  Parade could have made the statement that great novelists, scientists, economists and elected officials are celebrities to revere and follow.  Instead it chose to state that only the opinions of mass culture actors are important.

Parade’s second hidden message is that the current purpose of the July 4th holiday is neither to commemorate, celebrate nor debate shared values, but to have a good time at a barbecue and see a parade and some cool fireworks.  We have no way of knowing everything the celebrities said to Parade’s writer(s); the only statements that make the story describe the fun that was had by all.  

None of the articles focus on things you can buy on and for the holiday, so Parade doesn’t wallow explicitly in mindless consumption.  But its message nevertheless supports the mindless consumer culture by focusing on hedonistic fun that somehow gains undefined higher meaning because it occurs collectively in the family or community.  All meaning is once again embodied entirely in the hedonistic fun—in other words, in consumption and consumption alone.    

In the past, Parade has taken the patriotic or issues route in its celebration of Independence Day.  For example, I remember one cover from more than 10 years ago in which then-First Lady Hillary Clinton earnestly and proudly saluted a flag with two fine upstanding white young people.  That this year’s coverage is so devoid of real content only reflects the current news media trend towards triviality and away from serving as a forum for discussing issues or increasing knowledge.  Someone might argue that at least there isn’t any war-mongering or militaristic propaganda, but in a real sense, all Parade has done has been to replace one set of myths and manipulations with another.

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