Memorial Day on Martha’s Vineyard is the quasi-official beginning of “the season,” which is to say the season of crowds, traffic, and unaffordable housing. As elsewhere in the U.S., schools, banks, government offices, and many businesses are closed. Parades are held. The cemeteries come alive with red, white, and blue. Back yards come alive with the sound of romping kids and the smell of grilling hamburgers. We are, we tell ourselves, honoring those who died for our freedoms.
The other day I snagged this cartoon off Facebook because it conveys so well my deep uneasiness about Memorial Day.
As I read it, the teacher is guilt-tripping a student for exercising a freedom that the serviceman was wounded defending. The student is tipped back in his chair with his feet up on the desk, as if he’s just being contrary.
It’s brilliant: Exercising one’s freedom is equated with dissing a wounded vet. Rote repetition of the pledge of allegiance must be a more suitable tribute.
In my lifetime the U.S. military has been more actively engaged in suppressing other people’s freedoms than in defending our own, and in any case we defend our freedoms more effectively by exercising them than by repeating platitudes about war. Conversely, we here in the U.S. are doing an excellent job of suppressing our own freedoms with no help from terrorists or anyone else’s military.
As Memorial Day approached, I found myself thinking a lot about Edward Snowden. From the beginning I was more for him than agin him, mainly because I saw him as a direct descendant of Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Only gradually, though, did I come to understand the significance of what Snowden did, which is to say the significance of what he revealed about our government’s threat to our freedoms. (If you haven’t seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s award-winning documentary about what Snowden did and why, I highly recommend it.)
The reaction against Snowden was a feeding frenzy. Pundits and public officials competed to condemn his action in ever more cataclysmic terms, rarely if ever grappling with what his actions revealed. No surprise there: this is our customary national reaction to anyone or anything that makes us uncomfortable. Take a look at the hysteria that followed 9/11, which hasn’t gone away. Attempts to criticize or protest any U.S. military action are greeted with rage and chants of “Support our troops! Support our troops!”
Hodding Carter III takes a hard look at the feeding frenzy, especially the media’s role in it, in “Glenn Greenwald, I’m Sorry: Why I Changed My Mind on Edward Snowden.” He applauds the “few and far between” media outlets who “pressed the print button and revealed the NSA’s dirty linen,” who “sounded the alarm, warning the American people anew of how much further down the road to an all-intrusive garrison state Washington had ventured.”
At the same time he castigates the far more numerous outlets and journalists “who twitched at every government accusation,” who saw no need “to grapple with the meaning of a government that conceived, created, and operated a secret high-tech vacuum cleaner to suck the meaning out of the Fourth Amendment.”
My favorite fairy tale has long been “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Of course I identify with the child who cries out that the emperor is parading down the street with no clothes on. Don’t we all?
But in the U.S. the knee-jerk reaction to such revelations is rage. The child would probably be dragged off her parent’s shoulders and torn limb from limb.
Or maybe she’d just be guilt-tripped for saying rude things about the nice emperor who makes her freedom possible.
So how to maintain some perspective on Memorial Day? It helps to go back to the beginning. In “Forgetting Why We Remember” (New York Times, May 29, 2011), historian David Blight reminds us that Memorial Day began in the wake of the Civil War, in which 625,000 died. “If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War,” he reminds us, “four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.” Not surprisingly, he writes, “Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement.”
Then he takes us back to Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1865, to the first commemoration of what came to be known as Memorial Day. Here’s a bit of it — but really, read Blight’s whole account.
The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then came a parade of 10,000, most of them black freedpeople, led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.”
Once Reconstruction ended, and white supremacy returned to Charleston, South Carolina, and the South, the event vanished both from memory and from the official record.
On this Memorial Day, it’s worth remembering.