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Action Required: The Modern Meaning of Memorial Day

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Photo: The author's great-grandfather among colleagues on the Western Front during WWI.

In the United States, since World War I, the last Monday in May, which was once known as "Decoration Day," has been known as "Memorial Day."

While many will be setting up their grills, weather-permitting, and fixing barbeque, or gathering with friends and family at restaurants, or in whatever location, thankful for a long weekend and looking forward to the summer, numerous journalists will also be making commentary on what this day means. They will be talking about our soldiers, and whether one is for or against whatever war or military action in which we are or have been embroiled, they will be reminding us that those who have fought and died for us, our country, and our freedoms, should be foremost in our minds.

I agree with this wholeheartedly, for whether one is for whatever war or military intervention or against it, no one should take issue with our veterans themselves. I come from a long line of American veterans, from our colonial past and the American Revolution through to my father, who was a Korean War veteran. My great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, and WWI on the Western Front, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He is buried with others who have marked our country's sacrifice in the midst of conflict.

However, my father, and my great-grandfather, and every other veteran in the generations of my family -- never mind the ones I know and love personally as friends -- would be not just be deeply saddened, but also deeply angered by two realities that seem to be endemic to this age. One is the lack of respect veterans have been given during and since Vietnam. The other, with them coming from previous generations, in the cacophony of this Information Age, the inability to see a vastly bigger picture, and be willing to act on its lessons.

In terms of our veterans: lip service is easy -- by citizens, pundits, and politicians alike-it makes for great sound bytes and a visible "show" of patriotism. But they are actually damnable, hypocritical, and cheap solace when actions taken (or not taken) directly contradict the words directed at those who are serving, or who have come home, and are expected to make a smooth transition and live a "normal" life again.

From PTSD, to the waiting period for benefits at the VA -- among other issues that are so glaring that no action having been taken is tantamount, in my mind, to a form of treason -- to the lack of understanding of war itself among the public, we have come to believe that saying we understand is the same as understanding itself. This is not the case.

But, to address the second point, this is not just endemic to our issues regarding veterans. This is also endemic to the realities on this planet -- and even within our own government -- that stare us in the face every day, to which we give lip service, cloyingly agree to their importance, but then do nothing.

Earlier this month, on May 3rd, was World Press Freedom Day. It was a day that came and went to little fanfare. Now, in this information age, this age of instant communication via varying means from SMS, email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, IM, Skype, mobile phones and video conferencing, transmission of information has never been easier and more immediate. However, in most countries around the world, its freedom is still limited.

Freedom House, dedicated to analyzing global political rights and civil liberties released its 2014 assessment, and found that for the eighth consecutive year, freedom globally was on the decline. Further: "modern authoritarianism" is "crippling...political opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity."

The worst area for such freedoms: the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The worst of the worst worldwide: Central African Republic, Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

In Freedom House's Freedom of the Press 2014 report, released on May 1st, according to the press release:

"We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments' efforts to control the message and punish the messenger," said Karin Karlekar, project director of the report. "In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists."

"In 2013 we saw more cases of states targeting foreign reporters and media outlets," Karlekar added. "Russian and Chinese authorities declined to renew or threatened to withhold visas for prominent foreign correspondents, but the new Egyptian government went a step further by detaining a number of Al-Jazeera staff on charges of supporting terrorism."

In the case of our own country, the ideals which the Founders -- as genuinely flawed as the Founders may have been personally in certain respects -- still deserve absolute respect for the implementation of ideals that were a combination of classic philosophy, the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy, and the ideas endemic to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, when Natural Law reigned supreme in human philosophy. And the ideals about which they argued, debated, and ultimately fought a Revolutionary War, and about which wars have been fought wars since, however sullied historians can say this history is because of certain inherent interests existing beneath the surface of whatever conflict, we need to remember something: 80% of the rest of the world to this day does not have similar freedoms.

(And perhaps we might one day be among them: we should be even more angry as even we are being subjected now to fewer freedoms, including right to privacy, freedom of speech and thought, including in light of NSA revelations. Even our own government seems to often forget some of the tenets upon which this country was supposed to have been founded, or collude in limitations of freedoms according to the special interests of certain among those within the government, and this seems to continue with the seemed tacit consent of the governed.)

On April 4, 2009, I wrote about George Orwell's 1984. This is a book that is often taught in high school here in the United States, but in this post-Cold War age, sometimes the reasons for teaching it are less pronounced than they were when the Soviet Union still existed. (For anyone who was not live during or who does not remember the Cold War, and its relevance to 1984, please see the film, The Lives of Others, or my post about its relevance).

Among many of my friends who are teachers, they teach it in terms of the Dystopian novel -- as it indeed is. When I taught, I had a whole Dystopian Unit, which included novels, essays, psychological tracts, journalism, and film -- everything from 1984 to the graphic novel and film of V for Vendetta. The themes have continued to prove inordinately important, and moreso in this information age, when information is inherently ubiquitous, but as we have seen from recent events internationally still subject to propaganda.

As with much literature of any merit, its messages are told, like many of our best films, through the story of others. Such stories teach students that it's usually the force in power that will try to convince everyone else that they are actually in or striving toward a utopia -- which is their surreptitious psychological means of maintaining control -- consigning everyone else, often by force, to the dystopian reality to which it appears only a few are awake. Those who are apparently awake usually form some kind of resistance or rebellion to awaken others to a previously unseen reality. Many others may be awake as well, but they're not willing to risk torture, murder, imprisonment or other subjugation to stand before that dystopian power and challenge it. They must wait for others who have the courage of their convictions -- and are willing to risk torture and death -- to free them, should their plight for freedom succeed.

In preparing to write this post, including its precursor on which this is an update, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I was watching the trailer for Michael Radford's film version of 1984, filmed in and around London during the very time period in which the novel originally took place. The control of media, wars fought about which the truth might never be known, terrorism being used to control the public and act as an excuse to limit rights and freedom of expression -- "thought police" and those who commit "thought crime" when not bending to party line.

What becomes true as things swing more and more to the extreme ends of the spectrum, is that the higher the stakes get, the more issues are seen as black and white, right and wrong, to the detriment of dissent. Control is seen as a necessary means of mitigating whatever potential damage might come from someone actually having his or her own thought -- and acting on it. It might not be good for the masses. It might prove to be subversive. Heaven forbid there be such a thing as freedom, for in 1984, "Big Brother" loves you, and only wants to protect you -- not just from others, but from yourself. For that protection, one must therefore believe that 2+2=5. And one must believe that with all his or her heart. And one must not question when the clock also strikes "13."

Remember, from 1984, those famous slogans:

"War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength."

Over the last years, from the Occupy movement to Arab Spring, to any situation in which intolerance of dissent is being perpetrated, any such questioning of the status quo, instead of debate and a subsequent vote, would come with instant arrest, and often, loss of life.

As we know -- but do little about -- there are places right now in the world where "Big Brother" is a despotic government or even non-state force which will subjugate a population, rape and murder anyone who objects, or in the cases of cultural and ethnic violence, rape and murder any human being who has committed the objectionable act of even being alive. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are laughable pipe dreams. Basic human survival is at issue among millions -- if not billions -- of people. And those slogans from 1984, which we as Americans would inherently consider ridiculous, may as well actually be the slogans used by various regimes whose brutality is just simply the beginning of a true reign of terror.

Seeing the world as it is, including our own country, it is pretty apparent we do not live in a utopia. We even point out on a regular basis how far we are from it. We scream bloody murder should any of our rights be impeded, though again, we sit by and watch them disappear down each and every slippery slope because we mistake talk for action.

The Patriot Act and NSA revelations caused endless debate -- as they should have -- as the rights of any who are subjugated are written about or covered by the media to the nth degree, even when we're tired of hearing about them in our own information overload, or in terms of other areas of the world, our own special brand of ignorance and/or compassion fatigue. Any conflict is inherently a story covered from every imaginable angle -- and cynicism, as much as we may hate it at times, does have its uses -- it assures that we aren't swallowing whatever b.s. is being forced upon us by some faction in the government.

But in remembering the other 80% of the world, we do take that right even to be impertinent for granted. We forget that such impertinence to whatever system in other parts of the world may be a death sentence. We haven't yet reached that place in the US, but it is a very brutal reality in much of the world outside our borders.

And we need to remember something else. Whether we realize it or not, and however unpopular we are in certain parts of the world, there are those who still look to us as the ideal of human freedom -- even if the more cynical among us think this is laughable. They look at our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution (which even some of our own citizens have never read) and can talk about the Founders place in the Enlightenment and their use of Natural Law in the language of these documents. They even talk about the difficulties the Founders had grappling with these ideals during the difficulties of their time -- including holding the natural rights of humanity aloft, while nearly tearing themselves apart over the issues of slavery.

But they tout, sometimes more than we do, the fact that our Founders challenged themselves and future generations as a first step toward bridging the chasms between such philosophy -- such higher ideals -- and politics, in which those ideals were either subverted or upheld in practice. They did something with those ideals, and a new country was built in the wake of that willingness to create something that had never been known before, and based on ideals that would, perhaps, have otherwise only existed in the ether.

For those who do not have such freedoms, there is a necessary fragility of hope, and where it exists, the necessity of it to live another day, and the necessity to fight for its very protection. For those who have no hope, a single light shone in the darkness allows for even a single moment of belief, and the recognition that despite all the horrors of this increasingly complex world, any among the subjugated is inherently human, and there are others who give a damn about that very humanity, and the right not just to exist, but to live with that humanity intact, including rights which are -- and should always be -- inherent as human beings. And whether we realize it or not, they look to us, seeing where we started as a nation-state, what values we continue to uphold, and what we were willing to fight for.

For they remember something that we often don't: that when the time comes, there are things worth fighting for.

It is my hope that we will never forget this, even when it is unpopular to recognize in casting a look askance at war -- whatever war -- which others fought for our right to be who we are. These men and women fought for our right to disagree -- to dissent -- and to define ourselves, however we might, as human beings and as a nation. Even those areas in which we have not perfected our own freedoms, we at least have the ability to fight for them, knowing, in critical moments, woe betide the force that would ultimately keep us from them.

At heart, I have to believe we are the Americans everyone who believes in us, believes us to be -- for our history, and our forebears, however flawed, are a part of us whether we choose to recognize them or not. And they deserve the honor befitting men and women who were willing to act on their beliefs, not just give them lip service, not just fighting for us, but for those who fought beside them. Belief without action is impotence. Anyone who has ever fought for freedom -- of whatever kind -- knows this inherently, and such human beings give their lives and their hearts to something greater. In action.

So, as I eat my share of Memorial Day barbeque, I will be thinking about the following: my great-grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and WWI, buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and about my father, who was a veteran of Korea. I will be wearing a red poppy, and reading both "In Flanders Fields" and Siegfried Sasson's poem, "Aftermath." And as importantly, I'll be damned proud to have been born in a country that while imperfect, still allows for views different from mine -- and yours, whoever you may be reading this -- thanking my father, great-grandfather, who put their lives on the line so that I might truly be one of the fortunate to know such freedoms -- enough to fight for them myself within our own country whenever we start heading down a slippery slope -- and hope and work toward the freedoms of others.

So, in honoring the American men and women on Memorial Day who have served, there are more reasons to do so than you might think. And this is not idealism. This is saying thank you.