A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, February 13, 2012

We'll Never Forget What's His Name

Next Monday is Presidents Day, but who cares?
Not me. What kind of holiday is this? Does it mean we should be celebrating losers like James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson?
No, it's just a generic hybrid of Lincoln's birthday and Washington's birthday that falls on a Monday between the two. And for what? So we can have another three-day weekend.
Back when I was a kid, Washington and Lincoln's birthdays were celebrated on their actual anniversaries. And everyone made a big deal about them, too, with public ceremonies, school assemblies and specials on TV.
And they deserved it. Washington was not only a strategic genius who won our independence, he was that rarest character in history: a conqueror who resisted the temptation to seize power. But he gained something more valuable than power: moral authority. When he died in 1799, even his former enemies mourned. Every ship in the British fleet fired a 21-gun salute in his honor.
He was our Obi-Wan Kenobe, not our Darth Vader. And as a result we are the world's oldest ongoing democracy.
And Lincoln was the man who saved that democracy and freed the slaves in the process.
But lumping them together in a generic holiday that could just as easily include Millard Fillmore and William Henry Harrison is tantamount to performing a lobotomy on our national memory. We risk losing our connection to role models who might help us combat today's problems.
But what about our beloved three-day weekends? Isn't it more convenient to move everything to the nearest Monday?
But that's my point: Inconvenience is good. The reason our forebears created national holidays is that some people made such big contributions, it's worth inconveniencing ourselves for a day to stop and say thanks.
Look, I like long weekends as much as the next person. The British create them by periodically declaring what they call "Bank Holidays."
But if you're claiming to honor our past, do it. Let's go back to bells and bonfires and public readings of the Gettysburg Address - and on the actual anniversary, too.
And speaking as one who is old enough to remember those days, I can tell you that the annual ritual had an added advantage: It inspired kids to dream that someday they could grow up to be like another Washington or Lincoln.
That also goes for our other holidays. Martin Luther King's birthday should be a day for all of us to take time to solemnly reflect on racism and how it has been the greatest curse afflicting our country.
Ditto for Labor Day. Who nowadays stops in the middle of a department store sale to think about Eugene V. Debs, Walter Reuther and the other labor pioneers whose sacrifices gave us some basic rights that are under attack once again, like Social Security and the right to organize?
Honoring the heroes of the past is not ancestor worship. It's actually a message of hope for the future. It makes us remember that democracy is an ongoing struggle. And that means we'll get our chance to be heroes, too.
Unfortunately, the trend is running in the opposite direction. Things are getting so generic, it won't be long before Christmas is the last Monday in December and Independence Day is the first Monday in July.