Legacy is a concept that resonates with retirees. We often reflect on our personal lives, our careers and, for many of us, the fate of our union. Today, across the country, we are struggling with an evaluation of our past in the context of where we are and where we go from here.
Monuments, grief and mourning have been in the forefront in the public forum lately as a result of the death of Sen. John McCain and the ongoing efforts in some states to remove or modify confederate statuary.
What’s it all about? We who are of a certain age are more familiar than most when it comes to losing friends, family and colleagues, and it engenders some questions:
Who should be remembered and how?
What should be remembered and why?
Winston Churchill once said that he would be remembered since he intended to write the history of his era. Few of us have that luxury.
Monuments are as much about legacy as they are about those who are being honored. In the purest sense, war memorials are often erected about a generation after the events as players age out and the next generation has enough time to reflect on the events without the “passionate intensity” of when they took place. Great public debates often accompany the move to honor the past.
In Washington, the World War II Memorial is classical and monumental in style; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a simple reflective wall cut into the ground. The Korean War Veterans Memorial highlights a few lonely soldiers with haunting lights at dusk focused on their distant, almost forgotten faces. Such tributes say something about what their creators thought about the past events from the perspective of their own day.
One would like to think that honoring the dead is only about paying tribute to the fallen, their lives and their sacrifices. But there are always other motivating factors. Even Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address had an agenda, noble in our view, in his call for a national commitment to high ideals. Many Confederate memorials established in the generation after the Civil War were put up in the 1890s Jim Crow era and even as recently as during the 1950–60s civil rights struggle.
While we must respect any effort to honor forebears, we also have to wonder about a darker intent given the timing and purpose for erecting these monuments. That is what is causing the current public debates, some rather exacerbated, about whether to pull down these Confederate memorials, leave them alone or put them in some historical context. Memorializing and unmemorializing has become almost as contentious as the original events.
While public grief and personal grief may be separate, they increasingly overlap in periods of mourning.
John McCain was clearly worthy of being respectfully honored. His passing touched on political crosscurrents so he became a rallying point in the current national nightmare. Nothing in public life is pure and undiluted.
As journalist Frank Rich noted, “We assert our character through our grief — or the lack of it,” and he questioned current motives of publicly expressed sentiments as “Virtue grieving? Obituary opportunism?” We must admit that marking the past with monuments can be for honorable or questionable motives.
As for our union legacy, we can wrap it up in a box and tie it with a ribbon to be admired on special occasions or it can be part of an institutional memory; a living, evolving incentive. We can use that concept of legacy, grief and monument building as a positive, prospective purpose to be played out in public action.
I am, of course, being political here. That’s in my nature and that’s in our UFT DNA. When we get involved even in a small way in union and political campaigns, when we contribute to COPE, when we take internet action to lobby for progressive labor, education and human rights, we take our legacy off the shelf, off the lobby wall and out of the box with ribbon and continue to build a lasting legacy.