How small towns weaponize Memorial Day

How small towns weaponize Memorial Day
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Monday was Memorial Day. There’s something I’ve been meaning to say. It’s about small towns and what they represent to white America. It’s about the choices small towns make to remember “those who died for our freedom.” It’s about a representation of America and how it influences national memory. It’s about remembering the past and how remembering it shapes our future.

Small towns* don’t have much of a future to look forward to, economically speaking. Whatever industry was there is no longer there or it’s no longer there to the degree that it once was there. A small town that used to be known for making, say, clocks – well, what’s there to talk about now that it doesn’t make clocks anymore, now that nothing of equal measure has replaced it?

People need to glorify something, though. The question isn’t whether. It’s what. So they look “abroad” – to a culture that, because it’s broad, has been diluted of the grit and tang of time and place. They turn to a national civic culture that’s already been made by myth, legend and rhetoric. They turn to a national identity, because they can’t or won’t make a local identity for themselves.

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They can’t, because the old local identity departed along with the industry. Or they won’t, because the new local identity isn’t the same as the old local identity. (The new identity isn’t white enough. More on that in a moment.) It doesn’t matter that the national civic culture is made somewhere else and “imported” from somewhere else. What matters is the local need to glorify.

All this points to memorials. Every small town in America, virtually speaking, has at least one memorial that’s given prominence of place and that’s dedicated to remembering “those who died for our freedom” in times of war. Most of them put on a parade on Memorial Day. Most parades march down the same “memorial parkway.” Most give voice to the same virtues using the same rhetoric of national civic culture. Most pay the same tribute to the same dead.

That is, they often don’t name the dead. Why? There aren’t a lot, for one thing. (These are small towns, after all. Most young people left along with the industry. Those who stayed, and who died in military service, are fewer in number.) For another, naming the dead might compromise the sameness of one memorial with all the other memorials in all the other small towns around America.

Naming the dead might compromise the connection that each small town has with each of the other small towns. Naming the dead might compromise the faceless features of national civic culture. It might compromise what small towns achieve in their solidarity with each other, which is far grander than what they can achieve alone. They achieve a representation of America.

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They achieve an image of “the real America.”

I’m not going to explain why small towns are seen as representative not only of something authentic but something authentically American. We know that they are. That’s enough for my purposes. We also know that that’s bosh. There’s nothing more authentic about living in, say, Bristol, Connecticut, than there is about living in New Haven (my beloved city). Each is authentic. Both have strengths. Both have weaknesses. Each has its own unique problems.

The difference is that, in Connecticut circles, Bristol is praised for being authentic while New Haven is accused of being inauthentic. The difference is that Bristol cares about what New Haven thinks about Bristol while New Haven isn’t aware that Bristol cares about what New Haven thinks. The difference is that New Haven wants to be New Haven. Bristol wants to be not-New Haven.

Bristol is mostly white (nearly 80 percent).

It wants to stay that way.

New Haven, however, is so busy paying attention to itself that it does not dedicate a place of prominence to war memorials. (This is not to say there are none; there are many.) It does not put on a Memorial Day parade that marches down a “memorial parkway.” (There isn’t one). Like other places, lots of industry left New Haven. Unlike other places, it found a way to maintain its local identity. It did not import a “foreign” one to replace a lost local one.

In New Haven, the local identity is us.

In Bristol, the local identity is not-them.

Small towns often can’t or won’t make their own identities because they often can’t or won’t see beyond what they have been to what they are becoming. And they can’t or won’t see what they are becoming, because that would mean recognizing the smart and enterprising people who are shaping their futures.

There’s the problem.

Those smart and enterprising locals look terribly close to not-us: to people in places like New Haven who have seen for themselves that their local identities are maintained; who have no need for a national civic culture and its faceless features that have been diluted of the grit and tang of time and place; and who understand that “importing” a national civic culture, and its faceless features, is not about replacing the old local identity. It’s about replacing a new one.

It’s about replacing them.

Some small towns have adapted, of course. Some have recognized that their futures can’t rely on the remaining sons and daughters of the original white people who settled to work in their original industries. Some small towns understand that diversity isn’t a liberal virtue that’s valuable only in the abstract. They understand its cash value. They understand its authenticity.

Others, however, won’t. They will continue to stop change, or attempt to stop change, and they will do this without appearing to. They will, instead, appear to be doing nothing more than remembering “those who died for our freedom.”

They are, in fact, trying to control how we remember the past in a bid to control the future. Memorial Day observances are part of that. They don’t have to be. It’s a shame that they are. But they are. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

*I’m talking about any small town in the country that used to be the center of one or more industries, but is no longer the center after manufacturers either collapsed or moved overseas. I’m talking about any small town that is surviving, economically, but is no longer thriving, has not for decades. I’m writing in New Haven. The small towns I’m describing are ubiquitous here in New England.

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