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Who Shall Speak for the Dead?
In a time of populist upheaval, are we forgetting to preserve and uphold what so many have sacrificed to pass on to us?
The word heritage has a multifaceted meaning. When we speak about our heritage, we’re not only talking about our collective history, we’re also talking about our collective traditions as well as suggesting that we have received an inheritance from those who have come before us.
There is no more fitting time to consider the American heritage than on Memorial Day, for today, we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of this country and its creeds. But on this particular Memorial Day, I find myself dwelling on the fact that fewer and fewer Americans are finding value in the heritage they’ve received and instead find their passions in populist movements more interested in tearing down established institutions and flaunting the norms and moors of the American tradition than they are of honoring and upholding what we have received.
Traditionally, a certain conservatism has defined American politics, one that spans the political spectrum. This conservatism finds value in the traditions of our heritage and speaks out in defense of the things our forebears fought, bled, and died for. Both major political parties have long made overtures to the US Constitution in their political arguments. Rarely has any political movement gained traction in American history that did not seek to attach itself to the values and ideas of the American heritage. Americans have long required from their political leaders more than just popular appeals; they have demanded an effort to speak for the dead and connect political efforts to ideals that span generations.
But in our time, we are witnessing a cauldron of populist discontent that has bubbled over and spilled across the political scene. The Far Right declares that the “Constitution is not a suicide pact” as they dismiss the norms and moors of American society in their maniacal effort to wage the Culture War. The Hard Left concludes that the entire American experiment is “hopelessly racist” as they characterize the founding vision as an unworthy project that must be overcome and replaced. Such discontent from the margins is not unusual, but our political parties are weak and susceptible to populist uprisings. The American people are either consumed by populist and overly partisan media or have simply checked out of the conversation altogether because they no longer know who to believe.
The entire political spectrum has become so embroiled in anxiety and fear that our political decisions have become almost exclusively based on opposition and resistance to political enemies. Overtures to the American heritage and affirming and uplifting the institutions and values we have inherited are either the last concern or only mentioned through empty epithets that falsely seek to attach our anxieties and fears to the hope and vision of our ancestors.
And so, on this Memorial Day, my thoughts dwell on a single question: In a time when our collective attention turns exclusively to the anxieties and fears of today, who shall speak for the dead whose sacrifices in days gone past preserved us a nation? Heritage is not a passive gift.