May 29, 2017

This is What They Died For

This weekend our nation observes Memorial Day, when we honor the memory of soldiers who gave their lives in battle to protect our country and our freedoms.  It is a long weekend, granting many people extra time off from work, ostensibly to turn some attention to our national memory, and also to celebrate and practice those freedoms we hold dear.

So, how do we observe this weekend?  Some people go to cemeteries to honor their own loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice. Others gather with family and friends to spend precious quality time together. Some go to houses of worship. Many go shopping.

Personally, I go to Seattle. 

Each year Gershon and I attend the annual Northwest FolkLife Festival in Seattle, which runs for 4 full days every Memorial Day Weekend. It is the most amazing celebration of life, of heritage, of diversity that I know of.  Over 5,000 people perform, and a quarter-million people attend. In attendance and onstage are every imaginable ethnicity, age, skill level, gender, and body type in the world. There is music and dance and poetry from almost every nation on earth, and food vendors offering sustenance and treats from across the globe.

This incredible festival of music, dance, poetry, and theatre is a microcosm of America. I sat and watched a Philippine fiddler perform Scandinavian music, saw Hawaiian dances performed by every possible ethnic group, and sat with a recent immigrant from Vietnam who proudly watched her daughter play violin with a Balkan street-band. We saw white people playing African music, and black people singing Croatian ballads. Many music and dance schools come to perform, and the pride of parents watching their children and students learn the arts of their own heritage can't help but move your heart. This is what they fought for.

There is also ample opportunity for attendants to participate. At every turn, there are huge crowds on their feet, shaking to Brazilian music, learning Polynesian steps, enjoying Zydeco dance with live musicians. There are American sing-alongs and African drum circles. Pregnant women dance, while new fathers feed their babies. There is life, and movement, and song and joy. This is what they defended.

America's best self is what our martyred soldiers fought to defend. Our loving country, which welcomes the tired, poor, and tempest-tossed to join our society. Our diverse country, where you do NOT have to lose your heritage in order to become a proud American. Our vibrant country, whose national mosaic becomes more beautiful with each new immigrant who takes the oath of citizenship. This is what they died for.

There are places in the world where you could never see something like this event. Diversity is not celebrated, not permitted at all. Religious freedom isn't allowed, expressing your true identity is harshly punished. Wearing shorts in public? No.  In some countries, even their own native music is forbidden.... it is only being preserved by people far away, at events like this. Freedom of self and expression is what our soldiers fought and died for.

We live in troubling times. Sometimes we feel that our way of life is under attack, from within and from without. There is much talk of deploying our military to "defend our freedom."  But we need to be very clear about what that means. For what reason do we send our troops into harm's way? For what purpose have they volunteered? What have our brave soldiers fought and died for?

All those noble men and women weren't fighting to defend hatred, bigotry, or xenophobia, even though some of them may have felt those things. They also didn't lay down their lives to enrich banks or oil companies.  They were fighting to defend our national ideal of true freedom for all, to give us more time to try to achieve it. We haven't accomplished it yet, but we're still trying. It is a difficult goal, one that has never been truly realized anywhere. America is the last, best hope for that ideal. With gratitude to all who fought and died during this struggle toward our goal, let us honor their memory and work hard to make their sacrifice count.

I go to Seattle to remember. Where do you go?

No comments: