Memorial Day speech at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Kennebunk, ME, Sunday May 29, 2012
Delivered in two parts
Ah Memorial Day weekend!
A national holiday commemorating that great national battlefield known as the Indy 500 and the day we set aside to worship the gods of American leisure: Weber, Kingsford, Coppertone, DEET, and of course Budweiser.What’s not to like?
It’s a holiday where the greatest issue before us turns on two questions:“charcoal or gas?”
“potato salad or chips?”And if you host a party you can feed people on the cheap, keep everyone in the yard, tell them to haul over their own chairs, and only clean one room in your house: the john.
And you don’t have to give anyone a gift and even more mercifully no one gives you fruitcake.It doesn't get better than that!
Every now and then, however, some purist or historian -- like myself -- ruins the mood and has to tell us the truth about Memorial Day – what it is we indeed are expected to remember.Of course, you didn’t really expect to get out of here alive this morning without me doing the same thing, right?
I’m sure you know that Memorial Day, first called Decoration Day, was originally conceived to honor the nation’s Civil War dead. I’ll assume you already have a great deal of knowledge about that huge tragedy in American history. But let me see if I can shed some new light on the subject and then from there let’s stop looking backward and let’s focus on the here & now.In terms of human treasure, the Civil War was the bloodiest war we have ever fought, not only claiming more American lives than any other war but also devastating the national landscape. The most devastating fighting was in the south and once gorgeous flourishing cities like Atlanta and Vicksburg were laid to waste. Sherman’s March to the Sea would have made many a Roman general pause.
Civil War deaths represent a larger loss of life than all the wars we’ve fought since – COMBINED – and that number is based on a death count of slightly over 623,000.Let me repeat that number: 623,000.
Incredibly this number – 623,000 dead – is being revised upwards.Professor J. David Hacker at Binghamton University in New York recently used 19th-century census data to demonstrate that the previous death toll of roughly 623,000 significantly underestimates the true number. Hacker’s data indicates the actual number of Civil War dead is at least 20 percent higher, putting the toll more accurately closer to 750,000 – almost three-quarter of a million human beings.
Hacker’s research is scholarly and highly credible and his research methodology demonstrates how more sophisticated data collection and modern statistical analyses allow us to revisit earlier assumptions, shedding new light on previous data. Today’s professional historians and other social scientists have tools earlier historians could never even imagine and as a group of professionals we are now able to communicate our findings in peer-reviewed formats that add to the integrity of our research and conclusions.
Hacker published his research in the December 2011 issue of “Civil War History” and his article explains not only his conclusions but also how earlier data collection was flawed. It’s compelling reading but for me the most astonishing take-away was what these same numbers – as a percentage of population – would mean to us today.
Understanding that the American population in 1860 was roughly 31 million people and realizing further that number was only about one-tenth the size of our current population, we can estimate that if the Civil War were fought today the number of deaths would total 6.2 million.
Yes: Six Point Two Million.
Can you imagine?
Think how we were rocked to our core on 9/11 – a day in time that cost almost 3,000 lives and now imagine a war fought in thousands of different places, from southern Pennsylvania to Texas; from the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and New Mexico to the Florida coast. The majority of the fighting took place in the states of Virginia and Tennessee but the Civil War was also contested on the Atlantic Ocean (as far off as the coast of France), the Gulf of Mexico, and the brown water of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
Imagine that today and think again about the possibility of 6.2 million deaths.
General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House signaled the end of the Confederacy’s attempt to create a separate nation. It set the stage for the emergence of an expanded and more powerful federal government. For a long period of time historians tended to say the struggle over how much power the central government would hold – a debate that began at the very genesis of America as a new nation — had finally been settled. This was the central issue of the Civil War: it was a fight over whether the individual states would operate as sovereign entities within a loose confederation overseen by a very small, limited federal government or conform not as sovereign entities but as interwoven parts of a large national, centralized government.
Slavery, of course, was the festering pus that forced this toxic debate to a head, bringing these two disparate ideologies to war.
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox only ended the large scale national slaughter; it ended the shooting war but left unresolved important issues that are still being fought today.
In my opinion, and the opinion of other historians, America has been, and continues to be, in a long cold civil war that is a very real continuation of old arguments about states’ rights and personal liberty.
I would suggest to you this morning that in many terrible ways, America is as divided today as it was on the brink of the Civil War 150 yrs ago.
Let’s pause here to pay homage to not only our Civil War dead but to all those Americans who have died in all American military actions. Let’s remember also the heart break their deaths brought to millions of others, to the people who loved them dearly, and to us – Americans who are also no doubt the poorer for each of these deaths.
Eva Downs will lead us in a responsive reading -- #583 on your handout -- titled “The Young Dead Soldiers” by Archibald MacLeish.
Following the reading Pat Conner, on guitar, will lead us in “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?”~~~~~~
Just about a year ago today Al and I enjoyed a fantastic visit with our dear friends Nicole and Bob Daines from San Diego. Nicole and Bob are authors, inspirational speakers, and lifelong activists for human dignity and civil rights. In the course of our many hours of stimulating conversations, Bob looked at me and asked “Maureen, why do you think you became such a liberal?”
After stumbling over some generic homage to the benefits of being raised on the north side of Chicago, attending excellent schools, growing up in an extended family of adults who were very engaged in the world around them and who were, almost to a person, lifelong Democrats, I was at a loss to pin-point any particular experience or personal influence explaining my left-leaning philosophy about life.
Rather lamely I said “I think it’s just me. I’ve just always been this way.”
Several days later I realized my answer fell wide of the mark when I had a sudden memory of an experience I’d had with my father when I was a child. The more I reflected on this experience the more I understood it was definitely my father who planted and then nurtured the seeds of my liberalism.
My father was a child of the Depression, a WWII combat veteran, and a practicing attorney and absolutely one of the most influential people in my life. A story about my father may seem more fitting for a sermon or speech on Father’s Day but my dad landed on Omaha Beach, slugged his way through the Battle of the Bulge, and his outfit helped liberate Dachau. Therefore, I believe he earned a place at this Memorial Day service – and I also believe what my father believed and what he stood for deserve to be remembered.
I was 6 or 7 and so this would have been in the late 1950s, a period of Eisenhower conservatism in a country still damaged by the paranoia and hate of McCarthyism. It was a time when being a liberal and a “pinkie Commie” were synonymous and a young Senator from Massachusetts had not yet made liberalism fashionable, let alone respectable. In a way, there are parallels to some of the uglier trends in contemporary America.
My father grew up rural. He was born on a ranch in South Dakota but after my grandparents lost everything in the Dust Bowl during the Depression they relocated to a small farm in southern Illinois. My father was one of those farm boys who once he saw the world never returned to the farm. After the war, he went to college and then law school in Chicago on the GI Bill and fell in love with both the city and my mother, a true city girl, and the rest became our history.
Dad loved museums, the Art Institute, theatre and symphonies and he introduced me to all of the culture Chicago had to offer but one of our favorite places to visit was always Lincoln Park Zoo. And this story is about one day when he promised to take me to the zoo but told me that we first needed to stop at a strange sounding place called “Bughouse Square.”
I didn’t much like bugs but was nonetheless interested in this unexpected excursion because I suspected it was going to be exactly the kind of place my mother would never have thought to take me.
We arrived and I was immediately disappointed. Bughouse Square was just another city park and it didn’t even seem to have any interesting bugs.
Dad found a park bench in the sunshine and together we sat.That was all we did: we sat. And we sat some more.
After awhile I asked what we were doing, sitting on that park bench.
Let’s get on with the zoo part of this day, OK?
Dad told me to relax; he said “Shhh… be quiet; watch and listen. Tell me what you see.”
Huh? “Watch what? Who? Where?”
Dad pointed to a man who looked like a bum, armful of leaflets, preaching or ranting or rambling on and on to a small group of curious onlookers.
Then he pointed to a very well dressed man holding court elsewhere in the park, no less agitated than the other guy, but mesmerizing a slightly larger crowd.
The park was busy with cyclists, dog walkers, and probably lovers holding hands. Most paid absolutely no attention to the two very different orators and certainly no one paid any attention to us.
I was very disappointed; it was incredibly boring and I was eager to get on with the trip to the zoo. Those orators shouting and gesticulating before their small crowds didn’t interest me in the least.
I wanted to go to the zoo – NOW!
Dad replied, “But we are at a zoo; this is the Zoo of Liberty. It’s where people come to speak and be heard and even be a little crazy.”
Honest to God, he said that; that’s how my father talked to a 7 year old. Can you imagine?
As my friends often said, my dad was weird. Sometimes he embarrassed the living hell out of me. Who talks like that to a 7 year old kid?I vaguely remember we eventually found our way to Lincoln Park Zoo but honestly I don’t remember much about the zoo that day. I loved the zoo — but something had changed in my life forever, although it would take a long time for me to realize it.
Suddenly the most important public space in the world was not where living things were forced to live in cages – which of course can be a metaphor for life. I was introduced to the fascinating and radical idea that the most important public spaces were where everyone had a voice and there were no cages. I had been introduced to Bughouse Square and the Zoo of Liberty.
My father didn’t think the people in the Square that day were crazy, or if he did he didn’t say so. No, that wasn’t the message he wanted to convey.
That first introduction to the fascinating world of non-conformist discourse led to many other discussions with my father over the years.
He had opened a window for me to crawl through and I did — and I never looked back.
At some other point, however, and I’m sorry but I can’t identify it at any particular time or place, he also introduced me to the necessary twin of free speech: responsibility.
It was my father who first explained to me that there is no constitutional right that allows anyone to falsely cry “fire!” in a crowded theatre. He explained crying fire in a crowded theatre would cause a panic that could cause enormous harm and maybe even death. However, in the case of a real fire, then the necessity of crying a warning alarm could mitigate against the possible harm caused by doing so; in fact, it would be a moral requirement.
This is a lesson in responsible speech; a weighing of rights and obligations; the beginning of the critical thinking required to understand that the risk of creating unfortunate situations could be justified in order to prevent even greater catastrophes. It is the beginning of understanding that our words have consequences and we must take responsibility for them.
He also taught me that my right to wave my arm ends where another person’s nose begins but that sometimes a powerful blow to the “old kisser” is absolutely necessary.
My soldier-liberator father had seen Dachau and was no pie-in-the-sky pacifist. He understood that sometimes a powerful blow to what he called “the old kisser” was absolutely mandatory.
“Some things,” he also told me, “really are worth dying for…and our duty in life is to understand which of those things merit such devotion.”
I realize that the seeds for how I think about both freedoms and duties, as well as how our speech and writings have power and are pregnant with consequences, were first planted in my mind by that fine man on a warm day in Chicago at the Zoo of Liberty, more commonly known as Chicago’s Bughouse Square.
Located across from the prestigious Newberry Library, Bughouse Square – whose real name is Washington Square Park – was the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction for 50 years. Bughouse Square (from “bughouse,” slang for mental health facility) was a place where orators (often called “soapboxers”) held forth on warm-weather evenings from the 1910s through the mid-1960s. In its heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, poets, religionists, and cranks addressed the crowds, but the mainstays were soapboxers from the revolutionary left, especially from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Proletarian Party, Revolutionary Workers’ League, and more ephemeral groups. Many speakers became legendary, including anarchist Lucy Parsons, labor-wars veteran John Loughman, socialist Frank Midney, feminist-Marxist Martha Biegler.
Today the Newberry Library hosts the annual Bughouse Debates as a celebration of First Amendment rights and encourages speakers and hecklers alike to join in and speak about important topics of the day. The event also includes reenactments of speeches by famous Chicagoans as well as poetry readings, music and food vendors.
One wonders how long that tradition will last.
Now what I feel necessary to add here – and this brings me to my conclusion – is that although I said the adults in my family were lifelong Democrats – and that was true – my father eventually became the only Republican in the bunch. Perhaps it was only out of loyalty for his military service in WWII – I don’t know – but Dad voted for Eisenhower and then remained a Republican until he passed away in ’78. But in one of our last in-depth conversations before he died we talked about the rise of the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell – whom he detested – and an actor from California who had presidential aspirations and whom my father called “a lightweight.” No need to mention who that guy was…
I find it fascinating that my liberalism was fostered by a man who wasn’t only a Republican voter – he also eventually served as a Republican Attorney General for the state of Illinois – and was part of the team that tackled Big Steel and made them stop polluting the Great Lakes. My father was a compassionate man who believed government should improve the lives of people, preserve our natural resources, regulate powerful corporations and special interests, and make sure all people had equal voice in the process.
Those were the days when conservatism and liberalism shared an interconnection of higher purpose.Those were the days when what divides us paled in comparison to what unites us.
Unfortunately, I think we all can recognize that this is not how we live today; those days seem over. The question is whether this represents a temporary setback or a more profound national cleavage.
There are many reasons why I think we are in serious trouble in this country and a full enunciation of those reasons would take a much lengthier discussion than is permissible this morning but let me just say this: in my opinion, one of the greatest dangers facing us today is the failure to understand the absolute necessity of unfettered -- but also responsible -- speech. This lack of respect for both free speech and the duties and responsibilities that must of necessity accompany it are having a most dreadful effect on this country today.
I think my father would say today, as I think he tried to say over 50 yrs ago, that the harm is not done by the powerless in places like Bughouse Square. The harm to democracy is done by those with power who fail to speak responsibly and with integrity -- politicians and clergy and other public figures.
But the duty is not reserved for public figures – everyone who is educated also has a voice and a duty to speak the truth well and responsibly.
And those people are us, my friends: the duty is also ours.~~~~
Ted Trainer will now lead us in a responsive reading -- #586 on the handout “The Idea of Democracy” by Abraham Lincoln – and Pat Connor will follow on guitar with “One Tin Soldier” and then we’ll close with “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Thank you for allowing me to speak here this morning. It’s been an honor.
|Washington Park Square ("Bughouse" Square) with|
the Newberry Library in the background