Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer Begins: Exploring Memorial Day

Memorial Day Weekend is here. In our beach town, this signals the return of the summer people, the amusement park and board walk open and yard sale signs flutter from every corner telephone pole. On Monday, the traditional date for Memorial Day, our town holds a parade, commemorating the service and sacrifice of our military, (but will also include older adult men, riding tiny cars, and other such parade goofiness.)

Memorial Day when I was a kid, way back when in the 1970s, living in a small, coastal village downeast, meant we woke early to decorate our bikes in red, white and blue crepe paper. We then rode our bikes to the town cemetery where a solemn ceremony was held, with flags, pipes and drums and folks dressed in uniforms of wars gone by. (This blog has photos of that town's Memorial Day ceremonies, which look just the same now as they did 35 years ago.) We also decorated with tissue paper poppies, some we made and others were bought for .25 at the market, from a veteran. Poppies have long been a symbol of remembrance.

Today, many people still celebrate Memorial Day by decorating grave sites with flags and flowers, attending parades, firework displays and pops concerts. Others still, simply gather with family and friends, have cookouts, or head to the beach or lake.(Still others shop the big sales that have somehow become associated with this holiday.)

There are some interesting ways to view Memorial Day (and similar holidays, like Independence Day and Labor Day). Is it truly just a day for remembrance or is it an example of something known as American civil religion, which is the idea that, "Americans embrace a common civil religion with certain fundamental beliefs, values, holidays, and rituals, parallel to, or independent of, their chosen religion?" This theory talks about how a new country relied on civil ceremony during times of social crisis (the Revolutionary War, Civil War and Vietnam War) to define, unite and direct the country. This process has close ties to the idea of American exceptionalism. This idea was originally used to mean that America was unique in it's democratic foundation. Eventually however, especially during the Cold War, between the US and USSR, American exceptionalism became the idea that America was uniquely moral, right, justified, strong, worthy and chosen by God to assert its values on the world. Through that lens, Memorial Day can be seen as a celebration of America's God-given directive. While honoring the memory of those who served, we participate in an act of civic nationalism, designed to profess our loyalty to the myth of America, Better Than All The Rest, (not to mention white and Christian.*)

So, what do you think? Do you think it hurts to participate in Memorial Day activities, this civil religion? Does it bring communities together, forge a common identity as a nation? Is it just about remembering the loss of so many during times or war, or is it about giving American a big whoop-whoop? Is it possible to both recognize America's unique-it's exceptional, place in the world, while also being able to recognize America's faults or overreach? Or has Memorial Day become so far removed from its origin, that it is only about barbecues and car sales?

*For a good read on what it means to have a white culture, read this.

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