What separates humans from animals can be summed up as one simple thing -- the mastery of fire. Even "using tools" doesn't cut it anymore, as apes have been shown to use their own tools to achieve their own modest goals. When you get right down to it, the sole dividing line between us and the other creatures which crawl this planet can be drawn at the mastery of fire. Animals are still scared of fire. Humans, now, are not.
This may sound like a strange beginning to my annual Independence Day column, but I write today in praise of recreational explosions. In a word, fireworks. Fireworks and the Fourth Of July are inextricably linked in American history, beginning with the first time the holiday was celebrated, in 1777, one year after the Declaration of Independence. Celebrating the Fourth with fireworks is not some modern invention, but actually started at the creation of the holiday's celebration.
Now, Francis Scott Key wasn't watching an Independence Day celebration when he wrote our national anthem, he was prisoner on a British warship as they shelled Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, in September of 1814. He was watching non-recreational explosions. Explosions with a purpose, you might say. He watched all night -- by "the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" -- and saw the next morning (by the dawn's early light) that our flag was, indeed, still there. He was so pleased that he dashed off a poem about the experience on a scrap of paper. If you go to a public event tomorrow, you will no doubt sing the first verse of this poem.
But, although fireworks is a big part of Americans celebrating their own history, the public's love and fascination with them is much older than that. The concept of fireworks predates the discovery of gunpowder. This seems like a contradictory statement, but it's true. The Chinese, everyone knows, invented gunpowder long before the Western world became aware of it. But hundreds of years before gunpowder's discovery, the Chinese were using "firecrackers" already, to scare away evil spirits, and (later) at most celebrations (such as weddings). Nobody knows exactly when, but somewhere in the range of 2,000 years ago people discovered that if you threw green (undried) bamboo onto a fire, the air and sap trapped in the sealed chambers (which bamboo naturally makes as it grows) would heat up -- and then burst out of the bamboo with a loud noise. Bang!
Later, some bright spark (that was entirely intentional) decided that the newfangled substance, gunpowder, would make an even more impressive bang when packed into bamboo... and the true firecracker was born.
But we've got to go even further back into the mists of time to understand why we all go "ooh!" and "aah!" during fireworks displays. Because even cruder "fireworks" than exploding bamboo were likely the first form of what we now call "entertainment," if not the beginnings of religion as well.
Thousands and thousands of years ago, the caveman "Ug" figured out how to tame fire (note: the names in this story are fictional and are totally a product of my fevered imagination -- I don't want the guys from the insurance commercials suing me or anything...). This was the crowning achievement of the human race at the time, and a good argument can be made that it was the crowning achievement of humanity -- indeed the defining achievement of humanity -- of all time.
Fire meant heat, light, cooked food, and defense against the animals who were still scared of it. All of which meant the shaggy Ug and his band of fellow cave-dwellers had made the jump from being no more than animals themselves, to being what we refer to today as "human." The taming of fire still inspires wonderment, even to us modern humans today. Anyone who has ever stared into a campfire knows this, and anyone who hasn't is the poorer -- for not having experienced this primeval connection to Ug's first campfire.
Because the fire at the mouth of Ug's cave was not only extremely useful, it was also entertaining. It was something to look at. Something magical. The flames leap around, solid matter is transformed into gas and energy, and the process itself is mesmerizing. But even this experience -- the only such entertainment Ug and his friends had ever seen -- eventually must have palled. So Ug decided to take things a step further. Picking up a branch with an end still smoldering and waving it around produced a thrill of another type. Sparks! Flames! Controlled by human hands!
As I said, this may have also been the dawn of religion, giving the most mystical of Ug's group respect among his or her fellows by being the most creative master of fire. It also probably led to the invention of the torch, but this was a mere utilitarian byproduct. Later, fires would be introduced into ceremonies to mark different ideas (such as the attainment of adulthood, or victory over an enemy) by braving the fire in some way (leaping through a bonfire, or firewalking, for instance).
Imagine yourself as a wandering caveman reporter back in Ug's day. You have heard stories which seem entirely unbelievable to your jaded journalistic mind, so you travel to check out what is really going on, for your readers in the UgTown Daily Post (Note to cynics: Yes, journalism predates fire, and has been conclusively linked to our lizard brain, meaning the dinosaurs were the first consumers of Fox News and its ilk. Ahem. Who's telling this story? Stop interrupting! Hrrmph.) When you get to Ug's cave, you are absolutely blown away. Not only has Ug tamed fire and invented the first fireplace, but he has also progressed to the point of having andirons and fireplace tools, and is working on inventing marshmallows to roast.
Well, no, I made that part up, I have to admit. But, seriously, if your only experience of fire previously had been as a result of a lightning strike, or fleeing in terror from a wildfire, it would be brain-numbing indeed to see the fearful phenomenon tamed and being made useful. And, after it got dark, watching Ug's firewizards actually "play" with fire would have been the news of the millennium.
Watching Ug (The name Ug, it should be noted, translates today as "Prometheus") pick up a firebrand and wave it around or knock it against a tree to cause a shower of sparks to fly upwards would have caused you to utter a new word or two in the human language: "Ooo!" or, perhaps: "Ahhh!"
So as you celebrate the Fourth tomorrow, don't mock Dad for getting in touch with his primal self by actually taming fire and using it to cook the burgers and hotdogs. Because the pride and power he feels in cooking raw meat for his fellow men and women is what separates us from the animals sizzling on the grill. And, later on, when you ooo and aah at the fireworks (unless your local town has cut them due to budget problems), you will be experiencing not only pride of country and a history of fireworks on the Fourth that started on the very first celebration in 1777, but humanity's first step on its ascent towards mastering our domain instead of being mastered by it.
So go out and enjoy some rockets, no matter what their color. Go out and get an adrenaline rush from a few bombs bursting, whether on the ground or in the air. Enjoy your independence, enjoy your pride of nation, and -- in a very fundamental way -- enjoy your humanity. Because the fireworks you view are not only just a thrill, they are also the bedrock of what it truly means to be human.
Sometimes the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award is given out for impressive achievement or deed. Sometimes it is given out for sheer impressiveness itself. But this week, the MIDOTW award is given for impressive patience, persistence, and grace under pressure.
Because the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was Senator-Elect Al Franken. For calmly fighting his way all the way up to Minnesota's Supreme Court against disgruntled incumbent Norm Coleman, Franken wins this week's award hands down.
The length of time between the election last November and being sworn in (next Tuesday, reportedly) means that Franken will enter the Senate as its most junior member -- more junior than every other new senator who won election last year. This lack of seniority means Franken will be the last in line for choice spots on key committees, but even with this handicap I expect him to do well in the Senate for the great state of Minnesota.
I also expect virtually everyone to be massively disappointed in Al, because I predict he will not be the "go-to" guy for humorous quotes on current events. The media will try their mightiest to get Al to tell us what he really thinks, in the funniest way possible -- but Franken has already shown he is smarter than that. He has said his model for what he intends to do in the Senate is another person who entered with her fame preceding her. Or "infamy," according to some. And Hillary Clinton impressed a lot of people by putting her shoulder to the wheel and her nose to the grindstone in an effort to be the best senator for her state she knew how, without inserting herself into the limelight in the process. Watch for Franken to very quietly learn his new job and learn to be as productive and effective as possible.
All of which means he may be keeping his head so far down in the coming months that he may not qualify for a MIDOTW award for quite a while. But, the future aside, Al Franken has more than earned his Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award for sheer stick-to-it-ness. We all look forward to next week, when we can finally start calling him an unmodified "Senator Franken."
Well done, Al.
[Senator-Elect Al Franken does not have an official Senate webpage... yet. But you can congratulate him in a few days by checking back to the official Senate page for the Minnesota delegation to watch for when his page does go live.]
You know what? It's almost our nation's birthday. I simply can't get into the spirit of chastising wayward Democrats this week, so I have unilaterally decided not to hand out a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week. If you don't agree with this decision, and feel that there were egregiously disappointing Democrats who really deserved this week's MDDOTW award, let me know in the comments.
Volume 84 (7/3/09)
In a similarly American tradition of slacking off instead of doing actual work the Friday before a holiday weekend, I am not providing talking points to Democrats today. Instead I present the full lyrics of our national anthem. If you've never read past the first verse, check it out. And if you get the chance, go visit Fort McHenry in Baltimore, or the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to see the original star-spangled banner of which Key wrote. It's worth the trip.
And have a glorious Fourth Of July tomorrow, of course!
The Star-Spangled Banner
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant