Memorial Day honors Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect “a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it.
Today, we recognize with humility the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have lost their lives from Yorktown to Normandy Beach to Fallujah. It doesn’t matter whether they fought in pointless wars, wars of imperialist expansion, or wars to save our way of life. Our homage is to their bravery and commitment, regardless of history’s assessment of the conflicts in which they served. Their democratically elected leaders called them to duty, and they responded with courage and good faith.
When members of the military are asked what they’re fighting for, the word “freedom” is foremost among their answers. But American freedom is a nebulous concept that has all but lost its meaning. Perhaps we should take a moment today to find it.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal,” even though he held 600 humans in slavery during his lifetime. George Washington, who the led Revolutionary War for freedom from England, owned 124 men and women.
Both men were acutely aware of the paradox and both paid lip service to the evils of slavery. Yet Jefferson freed only two of his slaves during his lifetime and five upon his death. Those five included his mistress Sally Hemings and the four children she had with him.
Washington freed his slaves upon his death, but not those who belonged to his wife, who outlived him. And even Washington pursued a runaway slave.
Slavery in America was particularly shameful given that Western Europe, including England, not only forbade it but denounced it.
Freedom in America has always been a conditional word — an oxymoron if ever there was one. The majority of early Americans did not get to participate in the great democratic experiment. The right to vote was limited to white males who either owned property or paid taxes. African Americans were not only disenfranchised, but each one was counted under the Constitution as three-fifths of a person.
The struggle for freedom is ongoing. African Americans are still fighting for the right to vote. Women are struggling for control of their bodies.
The industrial interests that produce pollution run roughshod over Americans without money and influence More than 100,000 citizens die each year because they are denied the freedom to breathe clean air. Black Americans are being held pre-trial in prisons because they can’t make bail, while whites accused of similar crimes are set free to await trial without paying bail. The Trump administration is reversing freedoms for LGBTQ Americans that were enacted when Barack Obama was president.
The Constitution was written to appease the Southern states' fear of losing their right to own slaves. The compromises made by the founders to get the South to join the union continues to deny Americans equal rights at the voting booth.
Due to their compromises, a vote cast in Wyoming has the same impact as 3.6 votes cast in California. If every American's vote was equal, Vermont would have one senator and California would have 12. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton would have been presidents.
There is no freedom more basic in democracy than the right to vote and the assurance that every vote is equal. Yet Republicans will never allow this relic of slavery to end, because most of their base is rural; if they gave up the electoral college and the guarantee of two senators for each state, they would lose their rigged political power to the majority of Americans. They say they'd lose their special rights to those of the majority of Americans.
For the same reason, Republicans have adopted an aggressive — and successful — movement to deny blacks the right to vote by making it more difficult to register, by gerrymandering, by tossing them from voter rolls, and other means. These travesties have been enabled by a Republican-packed Supreme Court that's either hopelessly naive or terribly partisan. In the court's decision to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "times have changed" and the law was no longer necessary.
The definition of freedom varies greatly from demographic to demographic. Evangelical Christians believe freedom gives them the right to deny freedom to LGBTQ people, who in turn believe that their freedom depends on their right to equality. Trump supporters decry public health measures to mitigate COVID-19, saying they're being denied the freedom to work, go to bars, congregate in large groups, etc. But most Americans invoke their freedom to protection from the lethal virus by preventing people from engaging in behavior that makes them virus spreaders who put the lives of other Americans at risk.
Trump supporters are so fervent about their right to endanger public health that in at least three incidents they’ve shot people for asking them to wear protective masks. One person has died.
As we honor today those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for American freedom, let’s commit to advancing what they died for — freedom. Let’s explore together what that word means and how to make it equally available to all.
That would be the consummate Memorial Day tribute.