September 29, 2017
We are awash these days in controversies about how we show our respect for this nation and its history, and how we show our disagreements with what’s happening or what has happened in the past. Monuments to leaders of the Confederacy, the National Anthem, the Flag: all these are once again in the center ring of this country’s drama.
I have little taste for these symbolic clashes. Going back to the Vietnam War I have friends who will not rise for the National Anthem and who will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I do rise and I do recite, and I have no beef with those who do not so long as I know them to be thoughtful people of good will. I do not take their not-rising and not-reciting to be acts of disrespect. I understand how their sensibilities are inflamed. Their protesting in this way does not strike me as a way to make progress on matters about which I care: endless war, white supremacy, vote suppression and more.
A few nights ago Ellen and I were at a Portland Symphony concert. On taking the stage the conductor Robert Moody led us quickly into playing and singing the Star Spangled Banner. I rose and sang along. I saw others remain sitting. Moody said he played the Anthem as a mark of concern for those Americans battered by hurricanes and many applauded, but I doubt that this did little for the storm-ravaged, and others surely put a different construction on the event. I didn’t mind too much and yet the playing of the Anthem at that time struck me as something I wouldn’t have chosen to do if it had been up to me. On this occasion I felt a bit coerced. Nevertheless, asked to show a small mark of respect for this, the country of my citizenship, I followed along. Inflaming the sentiments of those around me does not strike me as a helpful step.
At such moments I remember Albert Camus: “I love my country, but I love it in justice.” My country is not always just and we have important work to do to make it more just. In this regard it will not help to fail to show my love of country. But only so long as I’m not being manipulated into seeming to approve of things just the way they are.
Over the past two weeks, Ellen and I have watched the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick “Vietnam.” There have been moments both terrible and tender. We’ve often had tears in our eyes. We’ve talked about the difference that the nine-years difference in our ages makes. Watching this documentary has seemed to me like an important act of respect to those who died, needlessly, on both sides and to those whose lives were torn apart. We were both struck at how many of the contemporary political ills of our nation trace back to the illusions and lies of the War in Vietnam. How do we recover our ideals and trust? That question seems worth our attention.
On the other hand, I’ve been paying very little attention to the protests of NFL players and the tweet-storm reaction of the foolish, venal man who is currently the President of the United States. I’m glad the players taking a knee are standing up for racial justice (yes, ironic) but I know that I have more constructive things to do than follow this tempest and I worry that the real issues are being buried beneath the who-is-disrespecting-who-or-what claims and counter claims. Posturing is far more Trump’s preferred terrain than any cause or purpose I care about. (On the celebrity front, I’m much more appreciative of what Jimmy Kimmel did to keep the right issues in view on healthcare.)
I do think there are important issues deserving my attention and yours in the question of monuments and memorials. I do think that the various monuments to leaders of the Confederacy should come down, and no I don’t think this is a slippery slope to having no monuments at all because all humans have done bad things.
Monuments and memorials are one of the ways we tell our nation’s story. We need to regularly tell that story, noting both the high points where we advanced “liberty and justice for all” or slipped back. Every time we tell the story, we tell it a little differently: there are different tellers, different audiences and time has passed since the last telling. We learn new things. Over time, some bits recede in importance, and they should. We never can and never should tell it in exactly the same way.
We erect monuments and memorials, making them of bronze and granite and other sturdy stuff, to give some solidity or permanence to the telling. Our national monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln seem quite wonderful to me and I think always will. (When I visit, I especially like reading the stone-inscribed texts on the walls of the Lincoln and the Jefferson.) However we tell the nation’s story, these monuments are solid reminders than these singular people did extraordinary things, things that far outweigh less good things they also did.
Similarly the Vietnam Memorial strikes me as a holy site of national respect. (I think I like Arthur Danto’s distinction between monuments and memorials even if we do not follow it consistently.) It seems altogether right that we have preserved (for example) the Gettysburg Battleground, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, and the USS Arizona Memorial. Ditto the Statue of Liberty.
And yet, we need to remember that the telling of the nation’s story, the story of “e pluribus unum” and “created equal” and “liberty and justice for all”, is a story that can never be frozen in stone. Every telling is itself someone’s effort to emphasize some things and therefore give less attention to others. Each telling, thus, is an assertion and also an exercise of power. There’s nothing wrong with that. Or nothing wrong so long as we remember that no one’s telling is the last telling or the only authoritative telling. We all have a role in telling the story: that’s part of our story.
To love our country is to love a work in progress, never finished. Monuments and memorials, anthems and pledges are all efforts to give permanence to some way of understanding. This week I am remembering that full respect for the efforts of the past looks at all of these as having only relative permanence. Today or next year or next decade we are likely to need a different monument, perhaps need to remove one erected long ago. We’ll likely tell the story differently. Only with such a recognition can we pledge allegiance or sing the national anthem (perhaps we need a different one) with a full heart.