On Tuesday, after a quiet Memorial Day across most of America, Paul Kengor wrote with some melancholy about the empty streets and the unheld ceremonies.
“The streets were empty,” he observed sadly. “No one marching. The bands weren’t playing. No music, no 21-gun salutes. Where were the old-timers hobbling along in their military uniforms?”
Kengor’s non-adventure on Memorial Day was in Mercer, Pennsylvania:
That was what I saw on Monday — Memorial Day — when I took a ride with my sons to little Mercer, Penn., which every year hosts an annual Memorial Day parade. It’s the kind of parade you see in so many small towns in America: the Elk’s, the Moose Lodge, the Knights of Columbus, the VFW, high-school bands, snow-cone stands, church groups, flags everywhere. I’ve been attending for over 20 years.
And yet, not this year.
But, as he suggested, it could have been in many towns across America, or the big cities, for that matter. In most places, there were limited plans to undertake virtual ceremonies. But they weren’t the same. They weren’t truly the community coming together to remember our war dead: the people in arms who gave their “last full measure of devotion” in service of the nation.
I had a similar sense watching the Memorial Day special on PBS. It was a good-faith effort, and I don’t fault the participants in any way. They did a beautiful job. But besides the uphill struggle against the antiseptic virtualization of the production, they devoted an extended segment to the health care workers battling the coronavirus. As tremendously as we appreciate the sacrifice those precious professionals are making, commemorating them is not what the day is for.
That’s not because they aren’t brave and fearless and willing to give all. It’s because having a pandemic virus at large among us isn’t fighting a war. A war is above all a political act, one we choose because it’s about how we shall live, and – at least as often, if not more – how we shall not agree to live.
In the fallen state of man, it is sometimes necessary to establish by force of arms what we will defend and enforce, and what we will not put up with. For Americans, that’s what underlies the power of Memorial Day. It’s about those who died, yes; but it’s about what they died for.
The coronavirus simply isn’t on the same plane. It can take your life. But it’s not about moral choices that are worth giving your life.
It’s just a non-sentient virus; a force of nature that has no power of choice to oppose to ours. As I watched the PBS special, I felt Memorial Day going out relentlessly like the tide – in this case, a tide that will never be the same one coming back.
So it had a peculiar resonance with me that Paul Kengor pronounced Memorial Day 2020 a goner:
“We will still be putting the flags up for the Memorial Day weekend,” said the organizers for the Mercer Memorial Day Parade for 2020, grasping for a bit of consolation. Ironically, they offered this instead: “As time comes closer, if we are able to hold a cemetery service, we will do so!”
It was an ironic statement, given that Memorial Day 2020 was effectively dead.
There is sadness in this, no doubt. Kengor’s next words were a little ambiguous, although I think I know what he meant: “But alas, it isn’t buried forever. Memorial Day will rise again, a testimony to those veterans who never gave up.”
The “alas” sounds to my ear like a Freudian slip; the final sentence like a perfunctory hope that doth protest a tad too much.
My conclusion would have a shade of difference. Maybe Kengor had a similar idea rolling around in his head. Memorial Day will rise again. But it will have to have a new birth. We have said farewell to the old premises and the old memories of combat and victory, sorrow and endurance that have shaped our “Memorial Day” for the last century.
The specific, historical premises of memory are too old now. For too many, they are no longer our pulsing lifeblood. We’ve forgotten what freedom – the American idea of ordered liberty, the endowment of our Creator – really is. We’ve taught our children that it’s something to whine about; we have neglected to teach them that it’s something always under attack that has to be fought for, merited, understood, and cherished.
I think everyone now senses a great inflection point in the history of our nation and the world. It’s something I have felt coming on for more than a decade, and it’s here. We will not come out of this time the same as we were going into it. How we come out will be up to us.
Of course, I won’t fail to refer to the famous Thomas Jefferson quote about the “tree of liberty” – although my deployment of it may not be for the purpose readers expect. In a letter to John Adams’s son-in-law William Stephens Smith in 1787, Jefferson wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
What Jefferson meant was that keeping the flame of liberty alive is wrenching and disruptive, and can never not be so. In 2020, we have cause and then some to agree with him. The forces that have been creeping up on our liberty for a century are so furious at being disturbed, they are trying to destroy everything around us in order to put out the flickering embers.
But it’s not a given that there must be actual blood. That’s where America is rallying herself, once again, to defeat the odds of history. America is mounting what we might call a “revolution in place,” even a sort of fixer-upper project, one that isn’t about destruction of the past but about vision and rebuilding of the same house for the future.
My dear friends, look with the eyes of hope and not despair. The noise being mounted against America’s liberty, unity, and dignity is so cacophonous precisely because liberty, unity, and dignity are fighting back, and can still win the day.
Consider just two streams of good news from the last few days. One is the series of reports coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro that local citizens are standing up to the outside professional agitators descending on them, demanding that the thugs from Antifa and related organizations leave their peaceful protests alone.
A man telling the crowd to try and remain peaceful outside the police building. He also said while they appreciate white people's support and showings of solidarity, "this is not your space." pic.twitter.com/7CoVdDeZKq
— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) May 28, 2020
Look at all those college age white kids. https://t.co/FeG2iYaKsS
— Ron Bassilian (R) (@Ron4California) May 29, 2020
OK, I suggest nothing about "crisis actors" here, but *police chief* says rioters/looters were not from city.
This means outside agitators – organized – exploiting legit protests to foment civil strife.
We've seen it every time: Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, etc. … 1/2 https://t.co/lbn3fuoBPw
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) May 28, 2020
In a similar vein, armed citizens are joining forces to stand guard over businesses, homes, and police precinct offices.
Lawful black firearms owners standing guard outside their businesses. pic.twitter.com/UyV5uHw3cW
— Ezra Levant 🍁 (@ezralevant) May 28, 2020
— @uncdino (@uncdino1) May 29, 2020
Yes, the Target store we’ve all seen the video footage of has been gutted. So have other buildings and businesses. The livelihoods of hundreds of working people have been lost through this vicious destruction.
But what we see in the other videos is Americans who happen to be black (mostly), assuming for themselves the constitutional rights of free men and women, just as Frederick Douglass proclaimed with justice and passion more than 150 years ago, and just as Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined in his dream for his children and all the citizens of his nation.
This isn’t what a radical, organized fringe is doing, faced with an opportunity. This is what America is doing, faced with a legitimate grievance in need of redress.
The other stream of good news was captured in a column by Victor Davis Hanson on 26 May, carrying the unpromising subtitle slug: “Obama’s policies are in tatters, and the worst scandals of his White House are coming to light.”
Although it doesn’t sound like good news, it is. All polities, at all times and everywhere, have enormous difficulty facing up to the dark underside of government and politics. It was never going to be an easy undertaking to expose what one administration had been doing.
Much less would it be easy to expose what a string of administrations has done, especially given the shenanigans in government agencies, White Houses, and Congresses that go back to at least 1933, and that we have been lying to ourselves about, through the framework of a media-brokered narrative, for 80 years or more.
But even this, the ascendant, undislodgeable, media-tended public narrative of nearly a century, is in jeopardy. The work was started before Trump; Diana West put a big downpayment on the “reveal” with her 2013 book American Betrayal. Perhaps, if the Obama rearguard had been content to bide its time through the Trump administration and accept having to recover lost territory, there might never be a reckoning.
But Obama’s policies are in tatters, and his scandals coming to light, because the Obama rearguard was determined not to bide its time. On a broader scale, the partisans associated in the century of socialism with decentralized guerrilla warfare have clumped together in the capitals of the West to become a visible, centralized target. They have gone all-out, exposing their flanks, their rear, and their center of gravity in an effort to fight off the people’s challenge against overweening government.
That has made them easier to spot and target. Their level of exposure has been astonishing. If they were to win out, history could never say that they did it in secret, without the people’s knowledge or understanding.
This fight has been a messy, unsightly, discordant process, and it could never have been otherwise. Someday we may hold the fight in memory as one in which there was nobility, of the kind that once came to American minds when we saw the blue coat of the Continentals, the iconic doughboys of World War I, or the rumpled, laconic sailors and Marines of World War II. But for now, our unaccustomed eyes recoil from the real fight of liberty: the screeching, wrenching fight for a people’s soul.
We will never get our Memorial Days back, in the way we want to have them, without a new birth of freedom. But the inflection point we have reached is so profound, I suspect we may get that rebirth in the only way that would give us another 231 years under the same Constitution, faithfully observed and executed. That rebirth will require honest reality rather than concocted narrative, and painful exposures that peel back more decades than anyone’s reckoning currently envisions.
But America always beats the odds. The American people can handle it. We have set before us this day life, and death. Choose life.
We will circle back to Pennsylvania and let Abraham Lincoln give us our benediction, from a commemoration of war dead at Gettysburg in 1863.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.