‘Spirit of generosity’

Charles Marohn of Small Towns writes on his recent trip to Washington, DC with his family, and specifically on his experience of Arlington Cemetery in light of the recent mobs for/against statuary. Charles riffs on the idea of a “spirit of generosity,” which I’ve seen others write about using similar words: warm-heartedness, empathy, etc.:

We walked almost the entire cemetery. As we did, it occurred to me how our view of ourselves has changed over time. In the older parts of the cemetery, our “blue blood” heritage was visible in the headstones; the markers of the privileged and affluent were larger and more ornate than the others. As we got closer to modern times, the markers became more standardized and numbingly ordered way we envision in photographs of military cemeteries. Death is an experience shared by all classes of society.

There are exceptions, however. The Kennedy family – President John F. Kennedy, his wife and two of his children along with his brothers Robert and Edward – have a special place of reverence and reflection in Arlington. We could demand historical focus on their many human flaws – from their bootlegging endowment to a Chappaquiddick bridge – or we can, in the way societies have long honored their dead, big and small, have a generous spirit towards their many positive attributes in the hopes that they will inspire us to greatness. I’m happy we have chosen the latter.

One part of Arlington Cemetery has the Confederate Monument surrounded by the graves of many soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War. It was authorized in 1906 and completed under President Wilson in 1914. As I looked at it, it occurred to me how difficult it must have been for many to accept, but how important if must have been for others to see it built.

Again, it gets back to the regular troops, the ones who make the difference. I’m from Minnesota and served in the Army National Guard. I’ve always had a great deal of pride over the 1st Minnesotan, which turned the tide of the battle, and subsequently the entire war, in a suicidal charge at Gettysburg. I have this pride even though I know none of them. I’ve tasted none of their pain or suffering. Felt none of their fear or relief.

As I stood there, my generous self envisioned thousands of blue and grey troops coming together at Arlington in 1914 to honor those who died in the struggle, people the attendees would have known first hand. I can imagine the stubborn pride on some, the shaky hand extended by others, the shared smile between others. Aren’t we lucky to be here, right now, in this place.

Every president, including President Obama, has sent a wreath to the Confederate Monument on Memorial Day. I choose to interpret that generously as well.

I think any statuary that was erected specifically to proclaim “white supremacy” (as was the case with one of the New Orleans monuments) should have come down years ago. And I don’t think that should be a controversial attitude. In the meantime, Robert Mariani offers a counter-intuitive perspective on how other Confederate-era monuments can be understood as acceptable public statuary, and Robert E. Lee’s perspective has resurfaced as it seems to every few years.

A society that can accommodate remembering and living with some of its most difficult history is a strong society. It seems to me that the present debate, allegedly over statues, has underlying it a much more difficult conversation about whether America is still a land of opportunity, and whether life is tolerable for huge numbers of our people.

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