J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

“Something of the American Ideal” in Fireworks?

In anticipation of Independence Day, here’s a quick extract from Steve Macone’s Boston Globe essay about the temptation and dangers of illegal fireworks:

In this state [Massachusetts]—for weeks and months around the date—we celebrate the day in which our government broke away from another in order to make our own rules by violating the rules set by that new government. It’s beautifully, stupidly appropriate—America was, originally, illegal.

The Department of Fire Services reports 45 people were burned on more than 5 percent of their bodies by fireworks between 1999 and 2008, a figure that doesn’t account for eye injuries, smaller burns, or the fact that 12-year-olds are not known for their injury reporting skills in the face of being grounded. “The typical fireworks injury is a boy 7-14,” said Jennifer Mieth of the Department of Fire Services. “They’re not driving up to New Hampshire and buying them themselves. When the kids see Uncle Jim use fireworks with impunity they think, ‘Well, I can do that.’”

We all know what’s good about fireworks. There’s something of the American ideal in their upward trajectory and beauty on the backdrop of open space. The fingers of the explosions, shooting off in exponential pathways, are a sort of Manifest Destiny writ large across the sky. And each beach organization always trying to improve upon last year’s show is like pyrotechnics as a sign of progress.

But that’s where fireworks belong: in the sky, not in kids’ hands—reflected in a child’s glimmering eyes, not lodged there. No one ever watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and thinks, “You know, I would like to orchestrate a smaller yet more dangerous version of that in my backyard.”
And as another public-safety announcement, here’s a link to my 2006 posting “Ezekiel Goldthwait: fireworks victim.”


Robert S. Paul said...

On the other hand, we could be good parents (and uncles) to our children and supervise their activity, teaching them proper firework safety, and drilling in to their little impressionable minds what happens when one doesn't follow the rules.

That way, they won't be so tempted to do it in secrecy and get seriously injured in the process.

Another thing America wanted out of that revolt was individual responsibility; Maybe we should remember that, too.

J. L. Bell said...

You’re in a different legal position, up there in New Hampshire. Your duly elected officials and public servants have not decided that fireworks are too dangerous for sale to and detonation by the public.

Therefore, you can light off fireworks with all necessary attention to safety, and send no mixed messages to young observers.

For the audience here in Massachusetts, however, even the safest private fireworks detonation would be telling children, “It doesn’t matter what our democratic government has decided; I’m going to do what I want.”

(I actually don’t think “individual responsibility” was a big factor in the New England Revolutionary movement. Its themes were community responsibility, everyone working as a group, and upholding local government instead of the distant imperial government. Voices for individual liberties in spite of public opinion, such as Theophilus Lillie, were often shut down. Not until we had a republic for a while did folks realize that it was valuable to protect individuals and minorities as well as the nation or community as a whole. Just some thoughts for the holiday.)

Not Whitey Bulger said...

"For the audience here in Massachusetts, however, even the safest private fireworks detonation would be telling children, “It doesn’t matter what our democratic government has decided; I’m going to do what I want.”"

And the source of all wisdom in Massachusetts is found on Beacon Hill? That stink-pit of corruption and influence-peddling? You lost me there, my friend.

Boston had a long tradition of anarchic bonfires and petty arson to celebrate the 4th - always opposed by the forces of law and order, and eventually squashed by concerns of safety. Of course, the government was less oncerned with safety that with free people raising hell as they saw fit. A mob at a bonfire is always about five minutes from marching on town hall with a barrel of pitch and a sack of feathers, and the powers that be know it. We lost something important when the bonfires of old were domesticated into the fireworks of today. The bonfires - with their fireworks - were community events, organized by community men. Fireworks are entertainment at a safe distance, properly regulated and isolated from the population. There's more to life than safety.


J. L. Bell said...

You prefer a “mob at a bonfire” to a democratically elected government? Well, I disagree. I think that view romanticizes how mobs work. It also ignores the axiom that for all of democracy’s faults it’s still better than every other political system that we’ve ever tried.

Mobs at bonfires were rarely aimed at people in power; more often they targeted outsiders, whether it be Catholics in colonial Boston’s Pope Night or blacks at Ku Klux Klan rallies. The Revolutionary demonstrations, encouraged by one set of politicians and aimed at another, were exceptional.

For another thing, the people ended up hurt by anarchic mobs tended not to be the rich, powerful, and corrupt, but the defenseless. Two young boys were killed in Boston’s Pope Night battles, and Isaiah Thomas was nearly a third.

Political protest and civil disobedience have long and honorable traditions in Massachusetts and the world. People have engaged in those activities to highlight injustice. Lighting off backyards fireworks makes the important case for...?