Et in Wobegon Ego


Memorial Day PostcardI like Garrison Keillor, but I’ve never been a huge fan. Not that I don’t listen to Prairie Home Companion. I do. Sometimes. Usually because it’s just there. Sunday mornings. On my radio. I don’t know what it is. He seems perfectly likable. A little odd. I like odd. Somebody with whom it might be fun to go grab a coffee. Still, I just can’t completely connect with him.

Folksiness is his shtick. There’s something charming about that in this world of disposable fashions and consumer grade hipsterism. But there seems something canned about it. And that’s what probably grates on me a bit.

He was on the radio again yesterday morning. As is often the case, his guests performed some great music. And, he did his bit with the audience. Great patter. A real professional.

But then he said something that bothered me. It was about Memorial Day, which is this weekend. He made a point to say that Memorial Day is not political. When I heard it, his statement hung in the air for a few seconds while he moved on . . . Memorial Day is not political.

I think I know what he was trying to say. I think that he was telling us that no matter where we rest on the political spectrum, the loss of young men and women to war is a tragedy. I think that he was trying to tell us that their loss and suffering — their families’ loss and suffering — was something that we should remember. That their lives were something to celebrate.

But Garrison Keillor was wrong when he said that Memorial Day is not political. Memorial Day is a fundamentally political holiday. In fact, there are few days on the American calendar that are more political. Sending young people off to kill and be killed in war is the most profound political act that a nation can take. It is an act that our country has taken time and time again — and, in every one of those instances, it has had devastating consequences.

The non-political Memorial Day of Lake Wobegon does not ask us to think about the consequences of war. It does not ask us to reflect about the causes of those wars, the masters of those wars. It asks us to bend our heads, be thankful, and acquiesce to the expectations of our civil religion with all its liturgical pomposity — banners, parades, and brass horns. It is a Memorial Day stripped of the realities of war and death — the mistakes, the confusion, the tragedies, the brutishness, the horrors. It is a curio cabinet holiday, many steps removed from warfare’s bloodshed and pain. It is a holiday of hot dogs and soda and coolers of beer, all served on disposable plates and napkins of red, white, and blue. Memorial Day at Lake Wobegon requires a certain allegiance to the idea that our country is exceptional, that we are right and good.

But can it be right and good to memorialize without reflection? To celebrate without criticizing the strategists who have been so willing to sacrifice the lives of others? To forget our own culpability? To suggest that Memorial Day is non-political?

It seems to me that yesterday Garrison Keillor echoed that old lie, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It’s a lie that’s easy to say from the world of Lake Wobegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. But it is a lie nonetheless. War is not glorious. We are all diminished when people die in the name of war. And that is a political responsibility that we all share. Even at Lake Wobegon. Especially on Memorial Day.