The roots and lessons of Memorial Day

 By E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, May 25, 2014  http://www.washingtonpost.com

Excerpt

Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery…Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined. Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view… Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period…for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present….

Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/opinion/americans-and-their-military-drifting-apart.html?_r=0&gwh=55AA14F0ED97840280194E8EE34A0117&gwt=pay

to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001….Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July…politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality…makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.

Full text

Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery.

Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined.

Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view — in the case of the Dred Scott decision, it was the pro-slavery view — and to override growing popular opposition to slavery’s expansion. Religious people sundered their ties with each other over the political implications of faith and biblical teachings. And, yes, we struggled over race and racism.

We are not on the verge of a new civil war, and no single issue in our moment matches slavery either in its morally evocative power or as a dividing line splitting the nation into two distinct social systems. But Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period (the late David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, “The Impending Crisis,” has helpfully been reissued) for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present.

The holiday itself and how it was transformed over the years also carry political lessons for us now.

Memorial Day, as veterans are always the first to remind us, is not the same as Veterans Day. Memorial Day honors the war dead; Veterans Day honors all vets. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vast and politically influential organization of Union veterans. The idea was to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. Students of the holiday believe that Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR (and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1884), eventually set May 30 as its date because that would be when flowers were in bloom across the country.

The South, of course, saluted the Confederate war dead. A group of women in Columbus, Miss., for example, decorated the graves of the Southern dead at the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. This and other comparable ceremonies led to a vigorous competition over where the holiday originated.

It was only after World War I that Memorial Day was established as a holiday commemorating the fallen in all American wars. And it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, although that has not stopped the disputes over where it began.

Seen one way, the Memorial Day story traces a heartening journey: a nation whose Civil War took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans (more than 2 percent of the U.S. population then) could and did gradually come back together. A holiday that was initially a remembrance of those who died because the nation was so riven is now a unifying anniversary whose origins are largely forgotten.

Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/27/opinion/americans-and-their-military-drifting-apart.html?_r=0&gwh=55AA14F0ED97840280194E8EE34A0117&gwt=pay

to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the roots of Memorial Day in our Civil War. Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July. The graves that Logan asked his contemporaries to decorate were a reminder that politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality (the pro-secession forces, for example, wrongly insisting that the resolutely moderate Abraham Lincoln was a radical) makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.

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Read more about this topic: Special Report: Civil War 150 Robert J. Samuelson: The horror and honor of the Civil War on Memorial Day

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-jr-the-roots-and-lessons-of-memorial-day/2014/05/25/64a36fb2-e2ae-11e3-810f-764fe508b82d_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

e-letters – August 2012 to June 2013

Imagine America  8/22/12

About the dream, and voter suppression  8-28-12

Debating our values  10/3/12

Truth is a moral value   10/9/12

Revitalizing Democracy   11/9/12

Ten years of questions, outrage, tragedy, grief and change   2/15/13

Lessons from the Iraq War Tragedy   3/20/13

Harry Belafonte: Unleash radical thought   5/29/13

Transforming the world: work in progress  6/12/13

Overview – the big picture

A crisis this big changes everything By Oliver Tickell, The Ecologist, January 21, 2015  The world’s collective failure to tackle climate change comes down to one big problem, says Naomi Klein: the clash of climate necessities against corporate power and a triumphant neo-liberal world order. So after decades of government dithering… it’s time for civil society to unite and build a radical justice-based movement for climate action. Naomi Klein’s new book is This Changes Everything,

When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.” Paul Gilding  /www.ted.com/

Collective imagination emerges when people find strength in collective organizations, when they find strength in each other. Justice is never done. It’s an endless struggle. And there’s joy in that struggle, because there’s a sense of solidarity that brings us together around the most basic, most elemental and the most important of democratic values. Henry Giroux Being interview by Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company, November 22, 2013

“What is missing I think from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought. … America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such a quest.” We Must Unleash Radical Thought, Harry Belafonte,  February 2013  - 

 “Millions of people around the world find themselves searching for a more meaningful, relevant, and profound way to engage with life. Not only do they want to become more conscious as individuals, they want to personally participate in the creation of a better world…The fourteen-billion-year project that is our evolving universe has reached a critical juncture where it needs conscious, creative human beings to help build the next step, together.” Andrew Cohen, Conscious evolution for thinking people, EnlightenNext magazine

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse By Quincy Saul, Truthout March 23, 2015

The World We’ve Constructed Is Far Beyond George Orwell’s Worst Nightmare By John Pilger, AlterNet, July 11, 2014 

The Big The­o­ries Under­writ­ing Soci­ety Are Crash­ing All Around Us — Are You Ready for a New World? by Ter­rence McNally, Alter­Net, Jan­u­ary 27, 2010…Many of the ideas and insti­tu­tions that define our cul­ture are break­ing down — and that’s a good thing…today’s crises are part of a nat­ural process — clear­ing out what no longer serves us to make room for a new way of being…We can no longer afford to indulge out­dated world­views. In order to deal with the crises we now face, we’ve got to act on the new real­i­ties and under­stand­ings revealed by science…Rather than focus­ing on what’s com­ing apart, we want peo­ple to under­stand that this cri­sis makes it pos­si­ble to move to a much higher level of evolution.…Every cell counts. Every human counts.

Humanity Imperiled — The Path to Disaster by Noam Chomsky, Huffington Post, June 4, 2013For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves… The question is: What are people doing about it?It’s not because the population doesn’t want it…It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one…It’s not that there are no alternatives.  The alternatives just aren’t being taken. That’s dangerous.  So if you ask what the world is going to look like, it’s not a pretty picture.  Unless people do something about it.  We always can.

The World Grows More Complex by Linda S. Gottfredson, sociologist, University of Delaware – Modern innovations make us feel dumber, because they add to the work our minds must do.