So here are some limpdick phrases from politicians for Memorial Day. “We give thanks for those who sacrificed everything so that we could be free. And we commit ourselves to upholding the ideals for which so many patriots have fought and died.””It is their sacrifice that has kept America strong.”  “No tribute to these sacrifices is more enduring than a grateful nation determined to live out the promise of liberty.”  The identity or party of the speaker doesn’t matter, because all politicians say essentially the same thing about this holiday: the troops in the abstract are the best people ever, and deserve our support and respect, and we should live our lives in accordance with the ideals they fight for.  If you want more you can find it at the Huffle Puff.

Well, most politicians stick to that script, anyway.  Joe Biden, Rhetorical Anarchist, does not.  But sometimes that produces some absolutely fascinating political rhetoric and almost sublime moments of human empathy.  Go ahead and watch all twenty minutes if you have the time, it’s that good, from beginning to end.

Yeah it meanders towards the end, but damn.  That’s perhaps the most powerful expression of the commonly understood purpose of Memorial Day that I can imagine.

And yet . . . read this quick paragraph about an alternate proposal for Memorial Day celebrations centering around the civilian fighters of slavery and injustice from philosopher Mark Lance at New APPS.  Read this open letter written by someone from and about (ewwww) <em>Montreal</em>:

Here is what I have not seen you [the official media] publish yet: stories about joy; about togetherness; about collaboration; about solidarity. You write about our anger, and yes, we are angry. We are angry at our government, at our police and at you. But none of you are succeeding in conveying what it feels like when you walk down the streets of Montreal right now, which is, for me at least, an overwhelming sense of joy and togetherness . . . [some anecdotes about people cooperating spontaneously to fight what they’re calling injustice] . . . This is what Quebec looks like right now. Every night is teargas and riot cops, but it is also joy, laughter, kindness, togetherness, and beautiful music. Our hearts are bursting. We are so proud of each other; of the spirit of Quebec and its people; of our ability to resist, and our ability to collaborate.

Why aren’t you writing about this? Does joy not sell as well as violence? Does collaboration not sell as well as confrontation? You can have your cynicism; our revolution is sincere.

This quick scene accompanies the letter and shows the environment the author is talking about.

Imma wax magniloquent, and you need to know you’re in for that before you read any more.  So, as the hermaphrodite in the komono said, you now know what to expect if you look below the fold.  

Biden’s speech was excellent, and thoughtful, and human.  But the service to which his words are put is to make it easier to inflict completely unnecessary suffering and death while pursuing amoral (at best) institutional goals.  Mark Lance and the (shudder) French Canadian didn’t approach anywhere near that level of rhetorical skill or empathetic connection.  The Montreal letter is kinda hokey.  But the idea they tap into isn’t morally disgusting and approaches being profound: that we should not only be celebrating the attempts to fight injustice, and the anonymous slaves and citizens who try and rebel, but the part of the human spirit which drives groups of regular citizens which form to fight the unfair systems they find themselves subjected to, and the sense of a shared moral community which is the glue that binds those groups together.  Those ideals, and that part of being human, are the ones that deserve to, and should, be celebrated on a society-wide level.  Those are the parts of ourselves we should want to believe we all share.  Not the ability to take as much pain and offer as much sacrifice as the frontline members of the US war machine, or the necessity of having to constantly slaughter the civilians of other countries in order to keep ourselves “free” and maintain our “liberty”, whatever that means.

One more point I want to make.  We sneeringly ask of the decent people in the hundred years or so on either side of our founding how they could have possibly participated in, condoned, tacitly accepted, or even participated in an economy based on, slavery.  But the faces of our grandchildren’s children will curl in the same expression of contempt when they ask of us how we could have had any relation at all to our military endeavors, let alone condone them, excuse them, celebrate them.

Our military has operated in its current capacity and used the same strategies for about as long as slavery was legal in the United States.  Both systems inflict unnecessary suffering and death on a massive society-wide scale in order for some people to live more comfortably.  Except the US military does it on a larger geographic area.  About  4.8 million people were fed into the American system of slavery between 1666 and 1800. (That’s the best date range I could find, cite at the end of the post).  Taking just the greatest war crime hits of the military in the past seventy years (Dresden, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq II) we’ve killed about 3.8 million people (data from the Wik using the middle values of confidence intervals).  Not counting the greater number of people injured, displaced, forced to become refugees, etc.  Dead.

The understatement of the millenium is that human beings are complex and the general agreement in US society that slavery is morally unacceptable but that the military should be celebrated, even in the face of similar if not worse amounts of suffering for the latter, is certainly a prime example of that fact.  But another part of that complexity is the ability of societies to reconfigure their moral universes and banish what was once commonplace.  Is it really a question about whether we should celebrate the latter over the former?

The original memorial day was when thousands of black citizens in a town in South Carolina performed services and held parties in memory and celebration of the two hundred or so Union soldiers who had died in a prison camp near town and been hastily buried in shallow unmarked graves.  Thinking about why our society celebrates the “military” part of that story and not the “anonymous fighters of slavery” part of that story would be, I think, instructive.

Biden video via Metafilter.  The Montreal letter and video are also via New APPS which is, in general, awesome.  And this post is really just a much longer and roundabout way of saying what Thers at Whiskey Fire so succinctly and eloquently expressed.

Cite for slavery stat via and is “The Slave Trade in the Caribbean and Latin America.” in The African Slave Trade from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century Reports and papers of the meeting of experts organized by Unesco at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 31 January to 4 February 1978