Can We Mourn Yet?

3.

One of the official editorials by the editorial board of The New York Times on Sunday, April 3, 2016—the very same edition in which appeared the two articles I wrote about in my preceding post (one by Nicholas Kristoff and the other by Margret Sullivan)—was entitled “Race and the Death Penalty in Texas.” The editorial pointed to the overwhelming evidence demonstrating that the imposition of capital punishment in Texas discriminates against African Americans, and suggested that the death penalty both there and elsewhere in the United States should be abolished.

It certainly should be. However, that does not seem likely at present. One reason it is not likely is the current composition of the U. S. Supreme Court, which forty years ago reversed its own earlier judgment against capital punishment, permitting it again so long as it is not imposed in an “arbitrary or capricious manner,” as The Times quotes the Court saying in reversing itself. A deeper, even more intransigent factor is indicated by something else The Times itself says in its editorial: “Racism, of course, has been central to the American death penalty from the very start.” What The Times does not go on to say—but should have—is that for that very reason our national focus should not be on the death penalty at all, but rather on the racism that underlies and sustains it.

That, our national racism, is what we really need to eliminate. Otherwise, even if we as a nation were to side-step the Supreme Court and legislate the elimination of capital punishment, our real problem would still persist. In fact, it would in all probability just grow worse. We as a nation would all but certainly interpret the elimination of the death penalty as no more than the elimination of a lingering vestige of the racism we want to think we have already consigned to the past, rather than an ongoing crime we continue to perpetrate in the present. (In just the same way, according to numerous opinion polls, the majority of citizens of the United States were happy to convince themselves that the election of President Obama eight years ago proved that we as a nation had overcome racism.)

Capital punishment should be eliminated in the United States, and the election of our first African American President in 2008 deserves to be universally celebrated (regardless of what one thinks of him personally, or of the accomplishments of his Administration). However, neither eliminating the death penalty nor celebrating our first election of an African American President would prove the United States had overcome the racism that is such an ongoing national shame. Furthermore, by allowing us to pretend that we had already faced and overcome our racism, both would all too easily just harden our inability to mourn that racism, and its millions of victims past and present.

*     *     *     *     *     *

That brings me to yet a fourth article that caught my attention in the Sunday, April 3, edition of The New York Times. That fourth piece was also in the op-ed section. It was a column entitled “Why Slaves Graves Matter,” by Sara A. Arnold, whom The Times identifies as the “founder of the Periwinkel Initiative and the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans,” preliminary submissions to which, she tells us in her article, she is currently processing. In her piece Arnold argues that “community preservation initiatives can contribute to healing understanding and potentially even reconciliation,” then ends her piece with the following paragraph:

Our country should explore ways to preserve the public memory of enslaved Americans. Their overlooked lives are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country—and not just because they were “beneficiaries” of the 13th Amendment. We should remember enslaved Americans for the same reason we remember anyone; because they were fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents who made great contributions to our nation. Regardless of our country’s history or our ambivalence about the memory of slavery, we can choose to remember the enslaved—the forgotten. They offer our contemporary society examples of resilience and humanity. Preserving heir memory contributes to our own humanity.

Unfortunately, in this case, too, I remain a skeptic. Here, my skepticism is above all because everything depends on just how we go about doing our “remembering.” There’s remembering, and then there’s remembering.

One kind of remembering is that officially done on such occasions as Veterans Day or Memorial Day, when we all get together to put flowers on graves or watch parades, maybe even with banners admonishing us never to forget those who have sacrificed for our national good, sometimes even with their lives. Those two cases—Veterans Day and Memorial Day—are deserving of more attention, since they can be used as good examples of the hidden complexities involved in the whole mixing of remembering with the setting up of official memorials or days of remembrance.

Armistice Day was officially created to memorialize the day when the armistice that ended active hostilities between the Allies and Germany on the Western Front in World War I went into effect. The armistice officially went into effect at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918—the symbolically significant “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month,” just a clock-tick of history away from the World’s midnight. However, in many countries it eventually became an occasion to remember not just veterans of World War I but also all military veterans whatever. Following that trend, in 1954 the United States officially changed “Armistice” Day into “Veterans” Day.

Similarly, the “Grand Army of the Republic,” a Union veterans’ organization founded in Decatur, Illinois, held the first “Decoration Day” to memorialize Union soldiers who died in the American Civil War. In former Confederate states after the war, there were also various celebrations, held on various days, to commemorate Confederate veterans who had died in the same conflict. In the 20th century, all such celebrations, North and South, were merged into the current “Memorial Day,” which was also extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service, in or out of combat, not just those who died during the Civil War. Thus, unlike Veterans Day, which was set aside as the official U. S. holiday to honor all veterans, regardless of whether they died while in military service, Memorial Day was set aside specifically to honor only those who did die while so serving.

All too often, however, officially setting aside such days of remembrance—or officially setting up such memorials as The Tomb of the Unknown soldier in Arlington National Cemetery (or even setting up that cemetery itself as the official cemetery to honor U. S. veterans killed in combat)—does not, regardless of anyone’s intention, really serve genuine remembrance at all. All too often in such cases, what looks like an endeavor to encourage or even mandate remembrance in reality ends up just helping whatever powers that be keep the public order that perpetuates their power, an order that actually has good reason to fear being disturbed by genuine, spontaneous, uncontrolled remembrance.

In my next post, I will address that issue.

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