Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

At Front Porch Republic I've posted the following reflections today:


Today is a day of remembrance for those whom have died in the service of their nation. We attend parades, memorials, cemeteries and ceremonies to honor their sacrifice. Some - such as my son and I, yesterday - ride motorcycles through our capital city especially to recall those who may still be missing or captured. And, many of us will enjoy a weekend that marks the beginning of summer, with festivities ranging from barbecues to beaches to boats, almost all gatherings allowing us time to enjoy friends and family.

We mark this day with flags of the nation and recollections of the freedoms that we enjoy for which they made the supreme sacrifice. But, it is necessary and proper to recall that on the battlefield - doubtlessly assaulted by sounds and sights that few humans should experience, and hardly any can bear without scars, visible or invisible - almost no soldier is thinking of the nation, the flag, the Constitution or the even the liberties that we note particularly on this weekend. What they are, almost to a man and woman, thinking about as they move forward in the onslaught of violence and stench and horrors and death are the lives and loves they share with their comrades in arms. They die not for abstractions - ideas, ideals, natural right, the American way of life, rights, or even their fellow citizens - so much as they are willing to brave all for the men and women of their unit. On sparkling weekend days like this, beside white graves bedecked with pristine flags, we understand and interpret their sacrifice in broader and more comprehensive terms - and surely it is a piece, since it is to country and Constitution that they swear allegiance when they enlist. But on the battlefield, it for is the sake of particular people that they are moved to put their lives into immediate danger, against every instinct and impulse that guides any creature.

It is right to recall this, because as a nation we are more prone than ever to interpret our national story as one centered on the universal abstractions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, those natural rights of man with which we are all endowed, regardless of place and history and culture and kin that we may also happen to possess. As we have become ever more not only citizens of the nation, but encouraged to become citizens of the world, we lose the capacity to understand that the sacrifices of soldiers are made for reasons other than those abstractions. There is a danger that to be an American increasingly means solely a common allegiance we hold to a set of self-evident truths, and not a storehouse of memories and stories and traditions and folkways - some that are shared, others that are particular to a set of people - but all of which are indelibly American.

Our national self-understanding has been transformed over the past twenty-five years or more - from one bounded by particular stories of particular people, often with an emphasis on sacrifices made during war-time, instead to a nation-building effort to encourage allegiance to the idea of the nation, its animating ideals and underlying philosophy. As has been pointed out by my friend Mark Henrie, where once school-children learned about the lives and deeds of Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, and George Washington on or near the battlefield, now they are more prone to be taught (if at all) about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and above all, their Rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights (and, from there, their ever-greater realization through various emancipation and civil rights movements). The story of America itself is not a patchwork of stories, but instead a grand narrative that discloses - with Hegelian inevitability - the unfolding of an every more perfect natural rights Republic.

This emphasis upon the idea of the nation has been shared alike by liberals and so-called conservatives alike. If the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist (with an aim to overcoming any particular allegiances people may have had to region and varying traditions), it is today fiercely defended by conservatives. Our liberals have as their hero Martin Luther King, and our conservatives, Abraham Lincoln - both because they advanced the natural rights Republic. If there is one main point of distinction between liberals and conservatives today, it is that liberals believe that the idea of the nation can and should be extended universally, while conservatives would emphasize its limitation to a particular nation-state. Neither is much interested in defending the legitimate place of smaller units within the nation - other than as administrative units. Both are attracted to the theory of America more than its stories, poems, places and songs.

No soldier dies for a theory. He dies on behalf of the people with whom he enters battle, seeking to save those whom he loves, to whom he feels a strong sense of duty, and for whom he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Today, on this day of remembrance, we should recall not only the lives and deaths of the soldiers whom we rightly honor, but the right and proper grounds for their sacrifice, and keep in mind those reasons as we seek to defend, in our own less demanding ways, a nation of particular places, particular people, and particular memories.


And in reply to one comment critical of the idea of "particular stories about particular people" - thinking this can easily be construed to the ends of various PC multiculturalists, I've replied:

I think we should not mistake contemporary iterations of "multiculturalism" - that is, efforts by various self-proclaimed victimized groups to claim certain privileges and status - with the kinds of "particular stories" I'm alluding to here. To wit, the deeper motivation of these versions of "multiculturalism" is actually and ultimately a reinforcement of abstract liberal conceptions of the human self, ultimately shorn of particularlity. This is most deeply revealed by the marks of status by which such victimized groups are recognized - that is, biological markers that are ultimately to be regarded with indifference. What is excluded from recognition are groups and identities that are, to some extent, chosen, and hence are not allowed to claim any special status in liberal society (if it's chosen, that's your problem). About the best summation of this deeper point was made by my teacher, Wilson Carey McWilliams, which I've quoted and commented upon here.

I am not suggesting that there are not and ought not to be national stories - that's of course the kind of story we tell in relating the deeds of Paul Revere, Betsy Ross and George Washington. But there also ought to be a place for the stories of particular places with particular histories that will have less universal appeal or meaning to the rest of the nation. Where I grew up - in Windsor CT - we reserved a special place in the curriculum for the deeds of Nathan Hale, whose homestead in nearby Coventry we visited nearly every year. The same went for Windsor man, Oliver Ellsworth and the stories that were still told about the Connecticut Charter Oak tree, pictured on the back of the Connecticut state quarter (and before that, marvelously brought to life in the backdrop of one of my favorite childhood books, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which was a book that we were all encouraged to read as youth in CT). We were curious to learn stories about King Philip and the war he fought, as we could still see the cave it was reputed he lived in on a sheer cliff-face of Talcott mountain, a favorite hiking venue. These - and others like these - were stories that had particular meaning for me when I grew up in a Connecticut that still proudly identified with its colonial roots, and reserved a place for their retelling to the young in our state. When I speak of "particular stories of particular people," it's these sorts I have in mind...

Update, June 1, 2009: A reader sent me a link to this song, with the refrain "...right now, I'm fighting for the man next to me; I know he's fighting for me." Thanks to him.

No comments: