Friday, July 6, 2012

The Fourth—a day to reflect, if you can keep it

Posted By on 07.06.12 at 06:18 AM

German trench
  • German trench
There are holidays we celebrate and more modest holidays we observe, and the former are surrendering their dignity to the latter.

Thanksgiving has become my favorite day of the year. It is not only more of a family day than Christmas, it has become a more reverent day. Americans are lucky—divinely lucky, some would say—and on Thanksgiving we think about that and address it. On Christmas I'm not sure what we're thinking of, though we thank God the shopping's over.

On the Fourth of July we set off fireworks. We whoop, holler, and we lie in the grass and listen to Tchaikovsky. But on Memorial Day we visit graves. Whatever independence is, it came at a price, and on Memorial Day we think about that price. What are fireworks against a line of seven old campaigners lifting their rifles high and firing three volleys into the air, followed by an uncertain high school trumpeter offering Taps?

I am reading The Great War and Modern Memory, the late Paul Fussell's study of World War I and how it put ideas into our heads that are there yet. It was a war that promised to go on forever, as "part of the accepted atmosphere of the modern experience. Why indeed not, given the palpable irrationality of the new world? Why not, given the vociferous contempt with which peace plans were received by the patriotic majorities on both sides?"

The no man's land that separated the opposing trenches could be measured in yards, yet in the minds of the combatants the gulf became immeasurable. One soldier described the other side as "peopled by men whose way of thinking was totally and absolutely distinct from our own." So we assume of the people we are trying to kill because they are trying to kill us. A British soldier described the Germany enemy during a night attack as "wraiths in spiked helmets . . . dashing for safety on all sides . . . like disturbed earwigs under a rotten tree stump." The ocher British tunic that the Germans occasionally glimpsed was among the distinguishing marks that—a German soldier later recalled—his side "puzzled over as though they were the runes of a secret book or the spoor of some mighty and unknown beast that came nightly to drink."

"The idea of endless war as an inevitable condition of modern life" easily survived the 1918 armistice. World War I led inexorably to World War II, and on that war's heels followed "tbe Greek War, the Korean War, the Arab-Israeli War, and the Vietnam War." (Fussell published his book in 1975, which is the only reason his list is not longer.) Fussell does not even mention the cold war, which was like the hot wars in its polarities, in its demonizing of the enemy, and in the contempt shown by "patriots" for peace initiatives that smacked even faintly of compromise.

Today a cold war mentality has taken root inside America. The other day a column by Leon Pitts Jr. startled me with its bluntness. "Americans increasingly occupy two realities," Pitts wrote, "one based on the conviction that facts matter, the other on the notion that facts are only what you need them to be in a given moment. That ought to give all of us pause because it leads somewhere we should not want to go. When two realities divide one people, the outcome seems obvious.

"They cannot remain one people."

If anything, Pitts understates the breach. The editorialists of the Wall Street Journal would be the last people to suggest that facts don't matter. But there are plenty of facts, enough to cherry-pick the ones you want, and when I listened to these editorialists discuss John Roberts's ruling sustaining Obamacare, I thought that these were people whose way of thinking was totally and absolutely distinct from my own. Their discussion was over the commerce clause and Congress's taxing powers, while the illegitimacy of the health care law was a given.

Dorothy Rabinowitz: I was thinking about the number of times we heard yesterday the phrase, we have awakened a sleeping giant. The sleeping giant being the Republicans, by this thing.

Paul Gigot: Sleeping maybe, I am not so sure about giant. But go ahead.

Rabinowitz: True. The first user of this great analogy was actually the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Yamamoto, who said, I fear we have only succeeded in awakening a sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve. The terrible resolve is now indeed in the hands of the Republicans. But it struck me too that the connection with treachery, Pearl Harbor, all of that, the sense of treachery that the Roberts Court has infused in people, filled people with, the sense of a back-stabbing against expectations, that too is very much in the air—

If I'd had been at that table I wouldn't have known what to say. "What about other people," I might have chirped, "people who can now go to doctors?" They'd have stared at me with astonishment and contempt. So what do they have to do with anything?

Independence, or liberty, is like the flag and God in being a transcendent concept some Americans believe they uniquely understand and value and others merely appropriate from time to time for rhetorical purposes. They're wrong, but whatever. July 4 is the wrong time to push the subject. Five weeks earlier, it's easier to find common ground thanking the dead.

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