Memorial Day weekend, as it has for many years now, marks the official beginning of summer.In the Midwest, it’s when it becomes prudent to put your tomato plants in the ground, but here in California, they’ve been set out for weeks, and have even set fruit in some Bay Area banana belt hot spots.Around here, it’s the first opportunity to plan neighborhood barbecues with some confidence that they won’t be rained out (though perhaps not this year). With all the opportunities for Fun in the Sun, it’s easy enough to forget why we celebrate this holiday. And though it’s traditionally a mellow, reflective time, some stressful controversies have been in the air this year.
First, the history: Someone sent me an article from a Cleveland online paper which claimed that it was started by freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina:
“According to Professor David Blight of Yale University’s History Department, the very first Memorial Day was observed by former black slaves at the Washington Race Course in Charleston, S.C., at the end of the Civil War.
The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp in 1865 as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, the former slaves exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves.
They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. The work was completed in only 10 days.
On May 1, 1865, a crowd estimated at 10,000, including many black residents and 2,800 children, proceeded to the location for sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds. It was proclaimed the first Decoration Day (and later Memorial Day).”
We’ll dispense with citations, since the article on further research appears to have been lifted almost verbatim from a Wikipedia article, which in turn was lifted from….but no matter.
Other claimed Decoration Day (as it used to be called) founding sites per Google are Waterloo, New York and Petersburg, Virginia. This weekend President Obama revived a Mississippi version:
"A group of women visited a cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi to place flowers by the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at Shiloh," he said. "As they did, they noticed other graves nearby belonging to Union dead. But no one had come to visit those graves, or place a flower there. They decided to lay a few stems for those men too, in recognition not of a fallen Confederate or a fallen Union soldier, but a fallen American."
Well, yes.Our president does love to try to bring everyone together, doesn’t he?
Like most mythology, each of these stories probably contains a large kernel of truth.The overarching point is that it’s been considered proper to give thanks and praise to those who died trying to do what they thought was right for their country.
It’s deeply ironic that this Memorial Day week should mark the final push toward repealing the unsatisfactory “don’t ask, don’t tell” stratagem for dealing with the historical fact that there have always been gay members of the military forces.It’s true that there have been prohibitions against them, but it’s also true that reasonably discrete gay people, both men and women, have always been a sizeable percentage of the military population, just as they are in the rest of society.
And not just on the battlefields.Walt Whitman, now most often claimed to have been gay, spent many months during the Civil War caring for wounded soldiers in Washington hospitals—he even wrote a book about it.The complete details of his sexual orientation are still the subject of discussion, since in those days it was not as common as it is now to make public pronouncements about sexuality.
If it wasn’t being used as a subterfuge to keep gays out of the service, “don’t ask, don’t tell” might not be a bad policy, and not just for the military.Endless rehashing of banal sexual encounters, regardless of whom of what gender they were with, can be intensely boring for those forced to hear about them in unwelcome detail.
On the other hand, the contemporary openness about sexual orientation has had positive effects.Recent polls suggest that three out of four Americans now think that gay people should be allowed to serve in the military on equal terms with their straight brothers and sisters.Chances are that the 75% who think that’s all right have actually worked with gay colleagues, and are aware that they’re fully capable of doing any job, including military service.Most families have acknowledged gay members, even families of politicians, even dreadful families of politicians like Dick Cheney’s, whose gay daughter seems to be every bit as mean as her father.It’s time for the government to catch up with public opinion on this topic.
This Memorial Day it was veterans of World War II who were most remembered, since they have now almost all faded into history.My cousin and her husband were visiting, as he kept track by telephone of his favorite uncle, who was slowly sinking in another city. The uncle was a decorated veteran of the Battle of the Bulge—his nephew said ruefully that when he told his own grown grandchildren about this, they asked what the Battle of the Bulge was.
The preceding paragraphs were written on Sunday morning.And on Sunday night as I went to bed I noticed that the excellent Truthout website had forwarded an early Haaretz story about the Israeli commando attack on the Gaza flotilla.Since several local citizens were participating, I put the story and some links to it up as a news flash.
When Mike stopped in at the former Planet office on Monday morning, he found that someone had thrown an egg at the front door and plastered the premises with “Fight Islamic Terrorism” bumper stickers.
In the mailbox were a couple of self-asserted pro-Zionist pamphlets, including one juvenile screed that said “The Gruesome Twosome: Far Leftist and Islamo Fascism Both Love to Hate Western Civilization.” (Evidently the ignorant writer did not know that much of what is now part of “Western Civilization” originated in the Middle East—even “algebra” is an Arabic word.”) We haven’t filed a police report, because there’s no way of knowing which of the small handful of fanatics who are consumed with hatred of the Planet is responsible.
When some of the same element previously went after the Planet, one of their targets for some inexplicable reason was my late father.As my sister noted in an outraged letter to the New York Times, he fought in World War II to save the sorry of hides of jerks like this (she said it more politely than I.)
But the sneaky vandals who on Sunday night targeted the building which has been the Planet office for the last seven years should be aware that we’ve largely moved out already. The owners are the family of a California-born Japanese-American who served with distinction in the Pacific theater during World War II in the same cause as my father did.This building, which was his family home for many years, should not be desecrated by know-nothings whose liberties he fought to save.
And the rest of us should appreciate and celebrate the sacrifices of those who have gone before us by continuing to work for justice for everyone everywhere in the world, including for gays in the military and Palestinians in Israel.
Abraham Lincoln said about the veterans of another great war, “It is for us, the living, …to be dedicated …to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on.” Still a good plan.