the imaginative conservative logo

Memorial DaySo I’ve been criticized for saying that our country is, more than ever, a meritocracy based on productivity.

One of the threaders, in fact, said we’re a plutocracy based in pseudo-meritocracy. I’m actually sympathetic to that  (exaggerated) criticism, especially if the evidence used to support it begins with the ridiculous salaries “earned” by our leading CEOs.

I’m also sympathetic to the criticism that we have a kind of bourgeois-bohemian “cognitive elite” that’s starting to perpetuate itself as something like an hereditary aristocracy. We can see, for example, that our leading secondary schools are better than ever, but those available to most ordinary Americans are getting worse. We can also see that the families of the top 20% of Americans are getting more stable, while the families of the “bottom half” continue to deteriorate. That can’t mean that kids are getting an equal opportunity to succeed. 

Having said all that (and I could say more), I stand by my basic position. Productivity is the standard we recognize. We judge people as free beings who work. And so race, gender, religion, class background, sexual orientation, and so forth mean less than ever. I’m not saying, of course, that things are perfect on these fronts, but they’re better.

The best criticism of our meritocracy based on productivity is not so much that many claims for productivity are “pseudo” or faked. It’s that there really are standards higher than productivity.

And we’re supposed to honor one of those higher standards on Memorial Day. In his address for the occasion this year, the president made two memorable points.

He said this is a day when we honor “fallen heroes.” That phrase reminds us of the Athenian Pericles, and men who know how to memorialize great deeds, to find meaning in courageous death.

He added that the Americans today putting their lives on the line for our country are less than one percent of our population. And they don’t seek honor and glory. When they fall, we usually barely notice.

One reason among many is that the lives of the men and women who make up our various “special forces” are so different from those of their fellow citizens that they feel little connection to us and us to them. We can assume they don’t think much of our meritocracy based on productivity, especially if the productive really think they deserve what they have, especially if the productive show no gratitude to fallen heroes. We still have “citizen soldiers,” but most of our citizens have never been soldiers.  Most Americans, I would guess, weren’t close to any of the recent fallen, and many or most of our sophisticates, studies show, don’t even know anyone who serves in our armed forces.

Memorial Day originates with the Civil War. It began as “Decoration Day.” And it originated with women. Southern women took up the task of decorating the graves of what turns to have been hundreds and hundreds of thousands of their fallen heroes. Theirs was highly civilized work–a duty maybe more Greek and Roman than Christian.  That work, as the image above shows, continues today by some women (and men) throughout the country.

The original Decoration Day in the South–later Confederate Memorial Day–was April 26. But it was later in the spring in a few of the states in the upper South, at a time when the most beautiful flowers were in bloom.

General John A. Logan issued the order in 1868 that May 30 be Decoration Day. His order really was mainly about making cemeteries full of the fallen beautiful and inviting places, and he was following the example set by the women of the Confederacy. His was, from a Southern view, a partisan order, insofar as the day was to remember those who died to quell the rebellion and free the slaves. His order was also about services that would be remembrances that would be something like funerals.

Another source of our Memorial Day was a grateful memorial celebration held by the newly freed blacks in Charleston, SC on May 1, 1865. They fixed up a graveyard filled with meant-to-be-forgotten Union soldiers who had died in a hellish Confederate prison.

The Civil War (or, to be nonpartisan for the moment, the War Between the States) was America’s epic story, with the number of fallen heroes exceeding by far anything experienced by the great Greeks and Romans. The immensity of the causes and principles at stake–in addition to the incredible suffering and loss of life–meant it took a while for Americans to view the heroes on both sides as heroes. Still, when President Wilson said, in the interest of national unity, that the reasons for the fraternal struggle had been forgotten, he was wrong. And he should stay wrong. The issue of the constitutionality or rightness of succession can be argued. But not questionable is the new birth of freedom caused by the Union victory.

Memorial Day, after World War I, became unambiguously a day for the whole country. Large numbers of men from every state died heroically for the same cause, and the same for World War II and the wars since.

But Confederate Memorial Day lives on in eight states.

The name “Decoration Day” was abandoned in favor of Memorial Day because the idea of decorating had come to seem frivolous. But keeping the memories of fallen heroes alive through stone memorials and flowers and flags isn’t really frivolous. It is, to repeat, a highly civilized expression of gratitude and love.

It should bother us that we’re so detached from the fallen that most of us don’t think of Memorial Day that way, just as it should bother us that so many of our war memorials and cemeteries are crumbling from neglect. It’s not a sign of progress that we’re not much about putting flowers on graves anymore in general.

It probably should also bother us the date of Memorial Day is now moved every year to make possible a three-day weekend.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
2 replies to this post
  1. Yes indeed, and what a pity that America lost the Cold War to Soviets who believed that nothing was superior to materialism and productivity. Now they are gone but it is America’s foremost value. To paraphrase The Who: Meet the New Evil Empire, Same as the Old Evil Empire.

  2. On the subject of tending to graves, one of the lovliest holidays in Poland is All Saints Day right around October. The people travel en mass to the graves of their relatives to clean them, set down fresh flowers and pray. What makes the holiday truly special is its mass character. Hundreds of thousands of people turn out at the biggest cemetaries in Warsaw, where I live. Also, roads between cities and villages are crowded by commuters whose relatives have graves throughout the country. Poles use their days off work to travel long distances to clean graves. It is one of many true and living traditions made possible by religious and political homogeneity. Local governments make extra “cemetary buses” available to drive people to the cemetaries and other conveniences are arranged which, if the country were multicultural, would no doubt not be possible for fear of offending other religions, ethnicities and so on and so forth. It is also good that materialism has not deadened social expectations that the time spent not working must be spent visiting graves. People still really do this. Such national, mass traditions are a thing of the past in the multicultural, materialist nations of Western Europe.

    As to the specific subject of Memorial Day and Dr. Lawlers many fine points, I sometimes recall Machiavelli’s advice in the Prince that mercenaries make for the worst army because their loyalty is to the purse. I wonder whether the American republic, by detaching its military from the people, has not created just such a mercenary army. Politicaly, fighting imperial wars without the draft is easier, but in the long run this may risk creating a class of mercenary-citizens whose collective experience is not that of the citizenry at large. The cnonmilitary, majority citizenry in turn may become apathetic about the fate of soldiers, and about where the government is sending them and for what. I don’t say the draft ought to return, only that when a people become completely alienated from history and hedonistic in the extreme “self”, they will not do their duty as citizens to compel good foriegn policy and take care of soldiers.

    As has been pointed out many times, a remarkable thing about President Bush’s war policy, post-9/11, was that it was by and large the first time America at large was told to consume rather than ration for war, and thanks to the mass media, we all could take part in the excitement of nation building without being in any immediate danger, much like a video game.

    The most horrible thing about this situation (hegemonic power) is revealed by a quote Senator McCain conveyed via Syrian children in a Turkish refugee camp, who said they would “take revenge on those who did not help them”… as usual, the world hates America for intervening and for not intervening at the same time. It really makes you admire the Swiss, and envy the small.


Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: