Monday, February 20, 2017

“Presidents” Day

[We re-post our essay from last year, as it still applies.]


I grew up in a moderate secular home, in a religiously moderate place and time (New Jersey; Eisenhower).   There would be bunting on Main Street on the Fourth of July, and a parade, at which the children might wave little flags -- though these were no more pugnaciously patriotic than banners at our high school football games (the red, white, and blue  passing imperceptibly into “Fight, fight, maroon and white!”).  Columbus Day and Thanksgiving were occasions for teaching schoolchildren some easy bits of American history;  there would be a crèche on the lawn by the town hall at Christmas;  all without arousing controversy.  Patriotism blended inconspicuously into religion, to the benefit of both:  each infused the other with its own better nature;  religion shed some potential sharp edges in that it was aware that it served the whole nation, and patriotism was put in its proper, modest place, as we were reminded that there is something higher than White House or town hall.   That the whole nation (so it seemed) celebrated Christmas (or quietly acquiesced in its celebration), made that holiday itself both less and more than specifically religious.   It was, if we may so phrase it, political but not politicized -- a symbol of the collective reverent well-being of the polity.   And (by duality), occasions like Washington’s Birthday or Columbus Day, though amenable to tub-thumping if you were so inclined, still partook of a certain prayerfulness, as though we were acknowledging secular saints.
Prayer itself, in those days, was by no means excluded from the public square, nor from our public schools.    Group recital of the Lord’s Prayer was like a mini-holiday within each schoolday, as we bowed our heads and joined our hands -- and were permanently the better for it.    (Coming personally from an utterly unchurched background, I yet never felt this as any sort of imposition.  Rather, it was a welcome window upon an aspect of life shared by a majority of the townspeople, and from which I felt otherwise uncomfortably excluded. )

Now all that lies in ruins, undermined  in part  by identity-politics of increasing stridency, in ways all too familiar, that need not be here rehearsed (consult our essay, Happy Sacagawea Day), in part by mere indifference or convenience.   Latterly, such Presidents as Princetonian Woodrow Wilson, or ten-dollar Alexander Hamilton, are under attack from sectarians -- and on grounds, that would apply equally to Washington and (yes even) Lincoln, or almost anyone of consequence that you might name.   And the campaign race for that sadly tarnished office, has become ever more feral.  Come time, the holiday itself may be buried, along with Columbus Day, to be replaced, perhaps, by Subaltern Day.

The snare of convenience we may observe in that subtly poisoned chalice, the Monday Holiday Bill. 
Now, in origin, the word holiday means ‘holy day’, and not simply a day off, or an opportunity to get bargains at WalMart on flat-screen TVs.   The days on which these were to be observed  were based either on fact (Fourth of July) or on tradition (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter).  And the most important ones still retain these roots.  But the second tier now gets shunted to Mondays.  Mind you, I enjoy a three-day weekend like anyone else;  just pointing out that something was lost when we decided, as a nation, to “reschedule”.   We went from “Washington’s Birthday” to “Washington’s Birthday (Observed)” to … Washington’s Birthday (Forgotten).
The final blow to this last  was when it was folded in with Lincoln’s Birthday  to re-emerge as the entirely bland and meaningless “Presidents” Day, on which we observe the mighty accomplishments of such leaders as Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes…  

In this age when the top P.C. priority is to shun controversy and offend no-one, it is easy to forget that neither Washington’s Birthday  nor Lincoln’s Birthday  were  in origin  blandly celebratory or pro-forma.    They did not commemorate these men as merely persons --  both Washington and Lincoln were, in their own day   and for some time thereafter, subjected to such scurrilous abuse as makes the Birthers’ razzing of Obama seem mild by comparison.  Their contingently quirky personalities were not at issue -- this was not Oprah, this was not People magazine -- rather, they each represented a principle.   Those holidays in fact commemorated violent events of rebellion, one of which gave birth to the nation, while the other (by bloody surgery) prevented its death.   So far from being apple-pie-and-motherhood, these were principles, and drastic remedies, which anyone might well oppose, and many did:  at the time of the rebellion against our Colonial master, about a third of Americans supported the insurrection, a third were opposed, and a third sat on the fence;  and the Civil War split us cleanly down the middle.

Washington, we salute you.  Lincoln, we salute you.  Aye, and Columbus as well -- without whose bold adventure, your service might never have come to pass.


[Update 15 February 2016]


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