My Reflections on Memorial Day Weekend
Updated: May 30
Our nation owes a debt it can never repay. Although that sounds cliché, truths sometimes do. The U.S. played an essential role in many battles throughout modern history, helping end two world wars, stopping the spread of fascism in Europe, and ending the Cold War. When I was a child, it was customary to convey the history of the United States as a battle of right versus wrong, free versus unfree, moral versus godless. In comparison with such childhood imaginings, adulthood is like diving into an unheated pool. It wakes you up.
I once heard G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate fame, say on his talk show that the U.S. had what he described as real freedom in the 1930s and 40s, before the great expansion of the regulatory state. I remember thinking that if I had to trade whatever diminution in freedom Liddy imagined accompanied the regulatory state to afford greater freedoms to African Americans, greater opportunities for women, and greater acceptance of persons who are gay or lesbian, or other minorities, I’d take the trade.
I’ve been teaching Constitutional Law for thirty years. At one level this seems odd; I struggle to think of myself as old enough. But at another, it’s all too obvious.
When I began teaching in 1992, our nation thought itself sharply politically divided. With the benefit of hindsight, that’s far less clear. It seems unimaginable that many who regarded themselves conservative in the early 1990s, if asked the questions plainly, would have supported someone like Donald Trump, condoned his endless tirades expressed through tweets, tolerated placating dictators in Russia and North Korea, supported erecting a wall on the southern border, opposed either—let alone both—of his impeachments, refused an independent commission to investigate the first ever insurrection on the U.S. Capitol building, and the list goes on. Although many who describe themselves as conservative may oppose some or all of these, that's increasingly and tragically untrue of elected members of the Republican party.
President Gerald Ford appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court in 1975. Stevens had served in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific theater during World War II as a code breaker, and upon his return, he was awarded a Bronze Star. Although on his retirement in 2010, most commentators associated him with the Court’s liberal wing, Stevens claimed that he hadn’t become more liberal; the Court had become more conservative. In a 2007 case that disallowed school districts to undertake modest voluntary efforts to avoid reverting to single-race schools, Stevens claimed that no member of the Supreme Court he joined it would have agreed with the outcome. He was right, and yet, despite this seeming sharp turn to the right, our nation’s general ideological center changed less than the nature of distributed preferences.
New York Times reporter Ezra Klein and the Pew Research Center have amply documented that the wings of our electoral distribution have been moving increasingly far apart since the early 1990s, when I started to teach. It so happens that during Stevens’s tenure on the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010, Republican presidents had more Supreme Court appointments than Democratic presidents (eight to three), pulling the Court further and further right at a time when the nation’s polarization was dramatically increasing. Since Stevens retired, Republicans continued to have more appointments (three to one).
What does any of this have to do with Memorial Day? Everything. On Memorial Day we honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, creating the debt that can never be repaid. But what does that mean? It cannot mean rigidly insisting upon ideological commitments that distort our history or treat the Framers of an imperfect document as if they were prophets as opposed to actual flawed people trying to ensure against great odds that our once fledgling nation might survive. Honoring those who died while serving our nation must mean relentlessly embracing a commitment to a set of ideals that can no more be fully realized than our collective debt fully repaid.
The Constitution’s Preamble states: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
A young child might find this confounding. Something perfect could never be more so. Our adult selves know better. Perfect is enemy of the good. In the real world, perfect means better than the past and aspiring to be even better in the future. Perfect is also a verb; perfecting is a process, not a destination. Perfect applies as much to our states of mind as to the state of our union. Perfecting demands acknowledging imperfections, and more perfect means committing to overcoming them.
On battlefields throughout our history, our soldiers—men, women, gay, straight, transgender, gender non-binary, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, of all religious faiths and of none—have given their lives, or endured severe injuries of body or mind, in committing to the ideal of a union that remains deeply flawed yet strives to be more perfect. Perfecting demands recognizing imperfection just as wisdom demands acknowledging what we too often lacked the sensibility to see. We can never repay the debt, but we can and we must do our best to ensure that debt is more paid.
I hope you all have a meaningful Memorial Day.