Memorial Day, in the Midst of America’s Great Dying

Vivos voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango.
I summon the living, I mourn the dead, I shatter the thunderbolts!
(Traditional inscription on European church bells)

Towards the end of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, a history of European politics and culture in the decade before the outbreak of World War I, she tells a tragic story about an assassination that took place just as all the major European powers were declaring war on each other. The victim was the French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès, who was standing against the nationalistic war fever that had spread overnight across the Continent and had overcome most Socialists of all nations, dispelling in an instant the romantic Marxist idea that the “class solidarity” of the so-called proletariat would trump their national identity, meaning that “the workers” would defy the “capitalist warmongers” and stop any major war in its tracks. Jaurès stood almost alone in embodying this ideal in reality, and he was murdered by a French superpatriot for it. In the days before his death, the tolling of church bells as the war began reminded him of the motto quoted above, which Germany’s Friedrich Schiller had used in his famous poem “Das Lied von der Glocke” (“The Song of the Bell”).

In America today, we are in the midst of a Great Dying that I fear is only in its earliest stages, yet this indisputable fact is half-suppressed in public awareness. We barely noticed when the “official” death toll from COVID-19 passed one million less than a month ago. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “From 1999–2019, nearly 500,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids.” Staggering numbers also confront us for gun deaths: “there were 1.5 million of them between 1968 and 2017,” according to the BBC, and of course these deaths are rising sharply, with the Newtown, Connecticut and Uvalde, Texas massacres of tiny schoolchildren only being the most heinous. The death toll among American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is almost paltry by comparison; by the end of 2019, the total for both wars had just passed 7,000, although as my wife is fond of saying about all such statistics, “If it’s YOU, it’s 100%.”

There is no getting around it: Human life is utterly devalued and debased in today’s America, although some lives are scorned more than others. The hypocrisy of almost all “pro-lifers” is too blatant and has been pointed out by too many others to harp on here, although it’s worth noting that they have no regard even for the lives of the “unborn babies” they claim to speak for, since these same people reject any and all forms of social welfare including nutrition for pregnant women. That the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are heedless of their own lives and have no regard for anyone else’s has also been pointed out ad nauseam. But how much better are the rest of us? Why aren’t millions of us in the streets demanding punishment for the Sacklers and all the other ultra-rich pharma executives who made fortunes off of mass death? Why hasn’t the sane majority of the public shut down the gunmakers? Why was it only the Q-anons whose voices were heard in state capitols as the pandemic wore on, screaming that it was a conspiracy cooked up by weary public health physicians?

In a republic like ours, flawed or otherwise, we count on the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperative self-interest of various social groups to produce a government policy that shall aim at achieving at least a rough approximation of the good of the whole society. Nothing is more fundamental to self-interest than the wish to protect one’s own life and that of those close to us, or so you would think. If people are too deluded, or too apathetic and “burned-out,” to defend their very lives, it’s no wonder that the American republic itself will soon require a Memorial Day.

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