Labor Day is not a happy holiday this year in America. There’s still much to be grateful for, very grateful, in our big, bountiful, awe-inspiring, sprawling, contentious, exasperating, but still heart-swelling nation. Our labor, our greatest task now is different than in the past. We still, of course, face old, perennial questions about how to enable more of us to participate in the blessings of liberty. But we must all now work with purer intent to preserve and protect the very things that make those blessings possible.
Communities, like individual human lives, are imperfect, vulnerable, easy to break down, harder to build up. As we’ve seen recently, a few malefactors can destroy large swaths of great modern cities in just a single night of arson, looting, and riots. Repairing the material destruction – as we learned after similar events in the 1960s – can take years, and the moral and spiritual damage longer, if ever.
What does the conscientious citizen, especially the Catholic citizen, do in such circumstances? There are policies to fight for, via law, politics, and media. More importantly, though, Catholics bring a different perspective to problems – or should.
We know God is the only real Lord of the world and his main instruments are truth and justice, but also mercy, forgiveness, bearing one another’s burdens, knowledge – contrary to utopians of various persuasions – that all have sinned, and a commitment to living and working in mutual solidarity despite our many and deep imperfections.
If we don’t practice and promote those basic, indispensable things, who will?
Memory plays a crucial role in this. As Abraham Lincoln – a great man to any unprejudiced eye, now himself incredibly attacked – put it on the verge of an actual Civil War, waged largely to end slavery:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
This looks like airy nonsense to most public figures now (forget the digital rioters on Twitter and Facebook): mystic chords? a national chorus? and angels ?– angels! It’s poetry, at best, probably even religion! Who believes that stuff can help with our deep national and human divisions? We need studies, programs, experts, movements.
Item: A Commission appointed by Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington D.C. (educated at Elizabeth Seton High School in Maryland) just issued a report (here) on public monuments and spaces in the capitol. The “working group District of Columbia Facilities and Commemorative Expressions (DCFACES)” recommended that the city “remove, relocate, or contextualize” over 1300 statues, etc., including the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial:
Our decision-making prism [sic] focused on key disqualifying histories, including participation in slavery, systemic racism, mistreatment of, or actions that suppressed equality for, persons of color, women and LGBTQ communities and violation of the DC Human Rights Act.
Historical re-evaluation can be helpful, properly done, but it’s not hard to see that this has little of the mystic chords of memory, and is destined instead to further inflame the passions Lincoln hoped to overcome.
The report is a natural offshoot of the now-nationwide overreaction to recent incidents involving police shootings, viewed solely in racial terms. But as in much else in our society, the report does not restrict itself to proper racial questions. It quickly shifts to “persons of color.”
We’re often told that “race” is a social construct, except when it’s a useful weapon for ideological purposes. How can anyone possibly define “persons of color”? Hispanics, for instance, may be “white,” “brown,” “indigenous” – to say nothing of “privileged,” or not. And what are (East) Indians – our most prosperous immigrant group? Or Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese – good for identity politics except when too many Asians get admitted to Harvard and cast doubt on the whole persons-of-color mythology?
Some Jews claim they were and are still not considered “white.” And what of the Irish, Italians, Slavs, etc., who long suffered under religious, ethnic, and social prejudices? Quakers? Mormons?
This being America in 2020, of course, it couldn’t stop even there. “Gender” had to come in as well, a very bad idea with many immediate inconveniences for the proponents and their friends. Taken literally, this “decision-making prism” would “cancel” every orthodox Jew, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or Buddhist, Black Baptist or evangelical congregation, every political figure in history, including the Clintons, Obamas, Bidens, etc., who publicly opposed gay marriage until they didn’t. They all have a potentially “disqualifying history,” whatever political expedients they may have later adopted.
They’d be “canceled,” then, if the principles were to be uniformly applied in the law, and media were doggedly to reinforce consistency.
They won’t be, but could if power passes into other hands. Which is why we should not countenance such overbroad and reckless initiatives. They can come back to haunt – or bite – us all.
With ill-conceived moves like these, we have set ourselves on a path of ideological purity that will spare no one. Jeff Bezos owns Amazon – and is one of the world’s richest men. He also owns the obsessively progressive Washington Post. Being a purebred progressive, however, is no shield against radicalism. “Protesters” – actually a young blond white woman in shorts, t-shirt, and baseball cap – set up a guillotine outside Bezos’ home last week.
Unlike other nations, America has never demanded ideological purity of citizens. As Chesterton noted, we’re a “nation with the soul of a church.” Pledge your allegiance to our basic creed – God-given liberty and equality; the rule of law, not of men (or women); a constitutional order that limits government and politics, and you’re an American, whatever your background.
Recovering those fundamentals is our main task on this Labor Day, and will be for no little time to come.
*Image: Abraham Lincoln by Ross Rossin, 2008 [Rossin Fine Art]. This portrait was commissioned by Newsmax for the magazine’s February 2009 cover.