I’m going to backdate this (I’m on vacation, which has involved a lot less free time than I anticipated and so I am behind on posts), so I think this post will “officially” come out around Memorial Day but I will note it is “actually” several weeks later. I wanted to talk about what I think is a particularly pernicious sort of attitude I tend to see around the holiday. I wish the following paragraphs were more elegant.
The attitude is that every single right you have as an American or even as a person is because a veteran fought for it and, especially on Memorial Day, died for it. Maybe it doesn’t pop up on your Facebook feed but it pops up on mine. A quick googling brought me “It is the Veteran,” a particularly direct and all-encompassing version of it. Credited there to Sarah Palin’s uncle (?), I’ll quote it here:
It is the veteran, not the preacher who has given us freedom of religion. It is the veteran, not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press. It is the veteran, not the poet who has given us freedom of speech. It is the veteran, not the campus organizer who has given us freedom to assemble. It is the veteran, not the lawyer who has given us the right to a fair trial. It is the veteran, not the politician who has given us the right to vote. It is the veteran who salutes the flag, who serves under the flag and whose coffin will be draped by the flag.
I think I first heard some version of this sentiment during my Plebe year at the Naval Academy. Even then I didn’t like it, but that might have been because I’m just a contrarian instead of some precocious political awakening. I don’t quite get why military veterans and their fans are so eager to claim every good thing that’s ever happened. Veterans are already pretty well lauded, why not let some of the love be spread around?
I think “It is the Veteran” is wrong, and so wrong that it is a full 180 degrees out. I don’t think you get rights because a veteran fought on the battlefield. I also don’t think you get rights just because someone says you have them or because they’re written down on some piece of paper. I think rights come from exercising those rights. Freedom of the press comes from the press writing about politicians that don’t want to be written about. The freedom to assemble comes from assembling when someone doesn’t want you build a movement. And the right to vote comes from voting when vested interests do everything they can to keep you from being heard.
More importantly, the attitude isn’t pernicious just because it is wrong. It is pernicious because it implies that people didn’t really earn their rights. The majority of people aren’t veterans and never will be. Saying that rights come from what veterans did means that the majority of people didn’t earn their rights, but owe their rights to the actions of this very small minority. Their rights are therefore far from being inalienable but instead have been granted.
The eagerness to claim that all rights stem from veterans is therefore I think an eagerness to be able to claim who does and doesn’t get them, or how people get to use them. If rights come from the sacrifices of a group most people will never be in, then it’s valid to say that freedom of speech doesn’t apply when supporting Black Lives Matter. It makes it valid to say that the freedom to vote is only really for people who vote the “right” way. It makes it valid to systematically deny whole groups of people their rights because in your eyes they simply don’t deserve them.
I suspect most people that share the sentiment that we should thank veterans for our rights aren’t thinking about what that actually implies for their rights or for the rights of others. But it is another part of an American way of thinking that allows us to say we’re the greatest nation on Earth without thinking about for whom that is and isn’t true. We are still in an era where people have to struggle every day to attain those rights that Sarah Palin’s uncle would say veterans already granted them. When those rights finally come, it won’t be because they shot enough people. It will be because they broke through the forces holding them down to stand up and exercise those rights.