Memorial Day at the National Soldiers’ Home, Dayton Ohio, late 19th century, Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library.
As Joan Rivers would say, “Oh, grow up!”
First of all, let’s be clear: Memorial Day is not about you. It’s about honoring the dead, which would make you think it would be a more sober holiday than it usually is nowadays.
And initially, it was. Memorial Day sprang from the practice of grave decorating that began in the Confederacy in 1861 and was adopted in the North after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1963. It caught on more broadly in the decades after the war as a part of the project of rebuilding a nation. In the south, honoring the dead was a task that fell mostly to women’s civic organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, which tended both Confederate and Union graves. In places where these committees neglected fallen Federal soldiers, emancipated slaves often stepped forward to make sure that Northern soldiers who had been laid to rest far from home were treated with dignity.
At least six cities in the former Confederacy and five in the North claim to have originated the memorial holiday as a local practice. But from 1865 to 1870, days were set aside to honor the dead as hundreds of thousands of Northern soldiers, often hastily buried in mass graves, were exhumed, identified, and reinterred in federal cemeteries. In 1868, John Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization (and eventually a national political machine), called for a “Decoration Day” to honor his former comrades.
By the 1890s, every northern state had established the holiday, and the GAR published handbooks with instructions about how communities could celebrate properly. While the term “Memorial Day” was not used routinely until after World War II, as the Civil War generation passed away, the day increasingly became dedicated to celebrations, picnics, and parades. In 1967, Congress officially dubbed the holiday “Memorial Day,” and in 1968, as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which reorganized national holidays to create the three day weekend, it was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
On this Memorial Day holiday, although we offer nothing martial, we challenge you with two long reads. First, MacKenzie Wark introduces us to Psycho Nymph Exile, a 2016 novel by Porpentine Heartscape that explores the fictional, dystopian world of transgender “void bitches.” Next, Polish designer and writer Marcin Wicha comments on the world of celebrity design — and as part of that, memorializes his father.
Next, we have three great essays that reflect on our pandemic economy. Sharon Block and Benjamin Sachs explain why the economic disaster that has accompanied Covid-19 is “the result of a grievously inadequate and inequitable social safety net and lack of worker protections.” Sociologist Patrick Sheehan reflects on the wacky world of career coaches, and political scientist Theo Almeida dives into the grassroots movement to #CancelRent.
Next, political theorist Cécile Laborde reflects on the meaning of liberty as we come to understand that many authoritarian governments responded more swiftly and more effectively than democratic ones. And in a piece reprinted from 1988, when Americans were struggling with the AIDS pandemic, the late microbiologist Joshua Lederberg explains that a virus is not an accident of nature — it is nature.
We end with two reflections. Family therapist Renee Schultz describes the confusion of her son, a man with Down Syndrome, who is trapped in his group home but doesn’t know why — or why his parents cannot visit. Finally, Jonathon Catlin and Benjamin P. Davis present the third week of their series, “Sentencing the Present.”
You have a three-day weekend, and we would feel terrible if we had not provided another excellent issue of Public Seminar for you to read as you prepare for the beginning of summer. One last point about Memorial Day: don’t randomly thank veterans for their service on Memorial Day. Although both holidays honor the United States military, Memorial Day and Veterans Day are not the same. Memorial Day honors those who have died in the service of their country, while Veterans Day honors those who have served in the military and are not dead.
This distinction is crucial, particularly to veterans and active-duty military who attend Memorial Day events in uniform and think of themselves as very much alive. “Yes, we should be grateful to those who have worn a military uniform of the United States in both war and peace,” writes one political consultant, “but if you thank a veteran for their service on Memorial Day, you’ll look ignorant to them.”
Consider yourself warned — and enjoy a socially distanced beer and a hotdog on us.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.