Juneteenth Joins the Cultural War

Happy belated Juneteenth!

I hope you spent the holiday doing what every American does best in the summer: sheltering inside with the aircon cranked to a manly sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. Juneteenth fell on a Saturday this year, so no doubt observers marked the occasion by grilling fatty processed meats then hastily retreating inside to zone out in front of Disney+ or the rising Mets face off with the aching Nationals (fun fact: June 19th is also the dodransbicentennial for organized baseball).

Perhaps you noticed Juneteenth (if you noticed the occasion at all) had a marked difference this year. The U.S. Congress and President Biden officially codified it as a national holiday, elevating the nineteenth of June to the same celebratory level as Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s natal day. In theory, Juneteenth now claims countrywide reverence; in practice, (mainly black) observers celebrate the liberation commemoration as they always have with rollicking jamborees, while everyone else is reminded by Google’s all-seeing calendar it’s a special occasion. And now federal workers get the day off—an unblemished win for libertarians, who view any day bureaucrats don’t clock in as a win for freedom. Libertarianism’s goal is, after all, a permanent federal holiday, so adding one day to the schedule surely has Murray Rothbard smiling somewhere in the firmament.

But because everything is kulturkamp, and nothing can waltz past the news cycle without drawing outrage from some corners, Juneteenth now has detractors, not unsimilar to militant atheists raging against Christmas trees in public squares. A century-old tradition is now the target of ire by those normally charged with cultural preservation: conservatives.

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday… is about replacing July 4th—just like the 1619 Project is about replacing 1776,” reasons boy-bandish conservative youth marshall Charlie Kirk. Tucker Carlson, the born-again populist Fox News anchor, echoed the sentiment: “Starting this Saturday [June 19th], our country is getting a new Independence Day to supplant the old one.” Pat Buchanan predicts Juneteenth “will become yet another source of societal division as many Black folks celebrate their special Independence Day, and the rest of America continues to celebrate July 4.”

Lest the wary reader think these are all just pen-pushers and tweeters trying to garner attention, at least one elected congressman senses an ulterior motive behind nationalizing Juneteenth. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana said in a statement, “[making Juneteenth a federal holiday] is an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”

Not sure what bolt of cloth Rep. Rosendale is referring to here, but Juneteenth didn’t materialize as a woke plot this year. The day has been observed since the 19th century, mostly by, though not limited to, black Texans. And it marks a wonderfully particular instance of blooming human freedom: when the last slaves in Galveston, Tx., learned of their manumission.

Why they heard word of their freedom in an out-of-sync chronology—Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation years before and the 13th Amendment, which legally abolished slavery nationwide, was ratified six months later—is a matter of the era’s limited logistical communications and reach of federal remit. The Galveston enslaved were only enlightened as to their freedmen status by the sheer force of U.S. Brigadier General Gordon Granger arriving on the premises.

Acknowledging the Constitution’s protections applying to a new class of Americans should be a chip shot for conservatives. Celebrating the central tenet of the American creed? That calls for a round of G.W.’s straight rye! Followed by a chaser of Rush Limbaugh-endorsed Amberen fat-cutting supplements! Hurrah hurrah, for freedom!

But it’s not that simple: our no-chill culture war means never letting your guard down. Political motives are always suspect.

The conservative reaction against Juneteenth is not against hallmarking the severing of iniquitous chains. But it’s about the next liberal demand, which will be rationalized under the umbrella of immortal slavery grievance. It’s no conspiracy, either. “It’s Juneteenth AND reparations,” tweeted Rep. Cori Bush of “the Squad,” admitting that federal recognition of Juneteenth is not enough and that Uncle Sam needs to pay up. MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid wished a happy Juneteenth “only to those who believe everyone… has the right to vote.” Actually, Juneteenth means opposing voter ID laws. And gravel-throated singer Macy Gray wrote an op-ed titled “For Juneteenth, American Needs a New Flag that All of Us Can Honor.” Again: recognition of a day honoring freed slaves won’t temper the calls for socialistic redistribution; they’re only emboldened.

So we aren’t debating Juneteenth qua Juneteenth as a holiday with federal imprimatur. We’re engaged in what Matthew Waltehr calls “meta-debates” about things that don’t have any direct relation to Juneteenth. And it’s all so exhausting, as the kids say.

Philosophy professor Agnes Callard says that Americans rarely talk about political issues in a literal fashion anymore. Political speech is now commoditized, functioning as “some kind of messaging.” Our arguments, whether they dispute gun control, immigration, abortion, or taxes, are in service to another end: accruing political power. The point made is never the point. We speak past each to fox the other person out of political legitimacy.

Conservative suspicion of Juneteenth comes from this assumption of bad faith: that the holiday’s most vocal champions are trying to use its newly federalized status as a cudgel to beat shame into America. There is a right argument against inserting Juneteenth into the US Code: that the day’s significance is particular to Texas, and that it’s a little weird for someone in rural Maine to raise a glass to an event that had no effect outside the Lone Star State. But nobody is positing that. We aren’t discussing Juneteenth because we can’t talk about any government action outside of the context of what it means for the next election.

Juneteenth’s real celebrants are patsies for a cause that may not interest them, but will undoubtedly affect them. Free at last means cultural embattlement forever.

Ah, well, best to crack a cold one anyway, before that too becomes a point of partisan contention.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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2 comments

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  • “The day has been observed since the 19th century, mostly by, though not limited to, black Texans.”

    THIS is why it shouldn’t rise to become a National holiday..It’s a localized Texan thing.

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