The fight for our national character: how four days in May showed us the best and worst in American culture

President Obama lays a wreath at a cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Friday, May 27, 2016.
President Obama lays a wreath at a cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Friday, May 27, 2016.

At a time when we pause to remember the men and women who offered up their lives selflessly and courageously in defense of our country and its highest ideals, we are seeing by stark contrast a less tangible but nonetheless consequential war being waged over just what those ideals are.

Nowhere are we seeing the very worst in our national character played out more than on social media.  Ignominious internet memes, videos, tweets, posts, and comments abound, laced with false assertions and sophistry demonstrating a lack of education and or blatant bigotry. 

Much of this vitriol has been aimed at our current President, who has been offered up by conservative propagandists as a symbol and surrogate for all that is perceived to be wrong with our country by those who would aim to undermine the very ideals they claim to represent.

Perhaps not surprisingly, for all of the accomplishments he has to his credit, President Obama has been among the most polarizing figures in recent American history.  Much can be said – and has been – on just how much of the anti-Obama propaganda is driven by a pervasive undercurrent of racism in this country.  That is an important point to acknowledge, because that racism takes on many forms, and the messages those forms advance belie the actual sentiment beneath their expression.

What was surprising, at least to me, was the level of contempt cast toward the President in response to his travels over the course of Memorial Day weekend, 2016.  That is what I will look at specifically in this article, because I believe it to be a microcosm of the larger war of ideals taking place in this country.


The speech at Hiroshima


Obama’s trip to Japan in order to acknowledge the hundreds-of-thousands of men, women, and children who lost their lives as a result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost literally blew up the internet.

On Friday, May 27, 2016, President Obama stood just a few hundred feet away from the epicenter of the Hiroshima blast and renewed America’s commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, saying, “We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations, like my own, that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.”

In honoring the victims of the bombings, the President called for their deaths to serve a higher purpose. “Their souls speak to us,” Obama said.  “They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.”

His remarks, delivered with genuine compassion, were a call for the remembrance of all of those who lost their lives.  He suggested that their memory should inspire to be found within each of us the moral imperative to seek a lasting peace among all nations, and to work toward the total elimination of weapons of mass destruction.

As high-minded and sympathetic as his remarks were, there was one thing they most patently did not include: an apology.

Yet what we saw in the days following his speech were thousands of memes being circulated around social media calling Obama “un-American”, accusing him – falsely – of “apologizing” for the bombings, and renewing the phony claim of his being Muslim.  Many of these messages went on to question why he elected to visit Hiroshima during Memorial Day weekend instead of a war memorial in the U.S.

These messages ignore entirely the fact that just three days after his speech in Hiroshima – Memorial Day – Obama did, in fact, pay tribute to America’s own by holding a breakfast reception at the White House for family members of fallen service members and veterans’ groups.  Later that day, in keeping with tradition, he traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.


Just what did they die for?


Obama did not, as so many have suggested, abrogate his obligation as Commander-in-Chief to honor those who’ve fallen in the defense of our nation.  Rather, he chose to make a key part of that remembrance the act of extending a hand of peace and friendship toward those who used to be our enemies.  What could be a more appropriate than to celebrate the peace that so many fought and died for, with an act of compassion toward a former foe?

This is how peace is achieved, and more importantly, how it is maintained: through remembrance, and by continuously re-committing ourselves to the values we fought for.  Those values include many ideals, but they do not include – or should not include – hatred, racism, xenophobia, ethnocentricity, isolationism, or nationalism.  To anyone who would suggest otherwise I would say: if that is what American values are, if that is what we have come to in the 71 years since the end of WWII, or in the 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, then all of those we honor this Memorial Day will have died in vain.


Fear, and the battle for the soul of a nation


The rising tide of hate speech – not so well disguised in most cases and draped in labels like “religious freedom”, “heritage”, or “patriotism” – leaves conscientious Americans wondering how we’ve come to this.  Where did all this ugliness come from?

The Southern Poverty Law Center credits rising poverty, violent encounters between law enforcement and minorities, terrorism, and fear mongering by political candidates for this increase.  Ultimately what must be examined and addressed is the fear that is driving all of this.  Fear of change is a quality intrinsic to human beings.  Fear brings out the worst in our nature.  And the United States, like no other country on earth, is a nation in a constant state of change.  Demographics are changing, ideals are shifting, what was old is new again, and what is new is quick to become irrelevant.  As a consequence, there are those who seek to elevate our collective conversation, and those who seek to drag it back into the muddy demesnes of the past.

So we are in a fight, in a very real sense, for the moral certitude of this country; for its very soul.  And if we are to win this fight, if we are to defend and preserve the very best of our ideals: equality, freedom, and might tempered by compassion, so nobly forged in the crucible of war and borne out by words like, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”, then we must continue to fight, not just as soldiers on a battlefield, but through the example that we set as ordinary citizens.

We set that example by not allowing fear to govern our passions; not allowing it to dominate our national discourse.  We set it by boldly embracing the better angels of our nature, rather than allowing them to be relegated to fringe ideology.  If you want to really celebrate Memorial Day; if you want to genuinely honor America’s fallen heroes, I can think of no better way than that.


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