Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day needs more memorial, less beer

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

Memorial Day needs more memorials, less beer

Even as a kid I was a bit prickly about holidays that didn’t do what they said they did: Christmas didn’t really celebrate Christmas, nobody worked on Labor Day and Easter – for reasons I now understand but which remain tucked safely away from public view – had more to do with chocolate eggs and bunnies than, well, with Easter.

Memorial Day is another one. Originally observed on May 30 it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May – in order to accommodate a three-day weekend and summer kick-off picnics.

Holidays are supposed to remind us of things that matter more than Christmas presents, Easter eggs, and – and I know this threatens my Wisconsin citizenship – more than beer and bratwurst.

Memorial Day was established by General Order 11 of the Grand Army of the Republic as Decoration Day, a day set aside in the wake of the Civil War to remember that America is a complicated union, and to honor those who died for that idea by decorating their graves with flowers.

West Bend, like the rest of the country, is engaged in some small, mostly civil, wars and it’s appropriate this weekend to remember that, regardless of where you stand on taxation or censorship, we’re all in this together. We can disagree and still live together, civilly.

It’s complicated and it can’t be something else. That’s the real lesson of Memorial Day.

Here’s a story.

I have a strange and wonderful job and Memorial Day, weirdly enough, is one of the reasons I wound up spending my life studying philosophy.

During my first year of college I took a class that studied Plato’s book “Crito,” which considers this question: If the state asks you to do something unjust, do you have to do it? Plato says yes.

Today, the topic sounds a bit humdrum and academic – but I first heard it in the spring of 1976. Here’s where it gets interesting.

In 1974 President Ford had issued an amnesty for draft resisters who’d fled the country. Quite a few of those boys were sitting in the front row. Sitting next to them was a handful of veterans going through college on the GI Bill.

Get the picture?

It’s more complicated than it looks. The freshly returned draft dodgers were not cowards. Most of them refused to serve because the country they loved had asked them to do something they knew was unjust. History agrees. Equally, the guys sitting next to them, recently back from Nam, were not gung ho robots. Most of them knew full well the war was unjust and that “I was only following orders” could never be an excuse. They went because they knew it was their obligation as Americans. Plato agrees with them.

This is not a simple matter of “America, love it or leave it” as the bumper sticker morality of those days suggested. Both groups had good reasons to think they did the right thing.

That’s the set up. Here's what happened next:

Things had progressed as you’d expect in a philosophy class: We read old books, we argued about fun philosophical questions (Can you prove God exists? What is reality? Does the light go off in the fridge when you close the door?) and, in general, everyone was enjoying the class – until we read Crito.

Crito is the story of what happens after Socrates is sentenced to death on trumped-up charges. Socrates argues that even though he was sentenced unjustly, he still has to follow the laws of the state that made his life possible. He can’t abandon it, he claims, simply because a powerful few misused the laws.

We arrived at this point in the text around Memorial Day. I remember it vividly.

“OK,” the professor began, “Plato argues that if the state asks you to do something you know is unjust, you still have to do it. What does everyone think?”

All hell broke loose. The room exploded. My classmates morphed into troops of shrieking baboons. Faces contorted with anger. People howled like wild animals. Chairs and a desk were thrown. Security was called.

As an 18-year-old college student sitting in the back of the room, all I could think was:

“Whoa. Philosophy is cool.”

And here I am.

So, who was right?

We're still working it out.

You can help.

This weekend, before the brats, take some time to remember those who, on our behalf, answered this question with their lives.

And, then, ask yourself: What are our obligations to each other?



JPenterman said...

I loved Philosophy 101. It was one of the top ten college courses I took, and it taught me how to argue. I wish it was a required course at the state's high schools. The exposure to the skill of developing debate and knowing a sound argument over lesser should not be a national elective. It would benefit everyone on each side of the fence and in between, except those exploiting the debate naive.

Anonymous said...

Love your column. Hopefully it will not be lost on those that need it most.

Kris Beaver