A single exchange of political speech with family or friends rarely creates a sudden, major change of heart for either participant. However, a single exchange can have a small effect and might lay the groundwork for later movement.
One of my younger sisters commemorated Memorial Day 2010 with a Facebook status update that said something along the lines of: “Take a moment today to enjoy democracy and freedom and then honor our nation’s armed forces, because we owe it all to them.”
I cringed. Considering the political power of war profiteers and the contraction of civil rights that accompanies ‘national security.’ I am convinced Americans would enjoy more freedom and democracy if we had a less militaristic history.
I feel more indebted to the farmers and frontiersmen in the early state legislatures who refused to ratify the Constitution until it contained a Bill of Rights. To the clergy, faithful townsfolk, and freed slaves who made the Emancipation Proclamation inevitable. To the unarmed but militant women who fought for the right to vote. To the small-town lawyers and down-and-out defendants whose struggles defined our freedom from search and seizure and our rights when accused of a crime. We owe factory laborers and farm workers for our rights as wage-earners. We owe peaceful luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt for keeping certain ideals alive. We are indebted to millions of now-forgotten people like ourselves who gave their lives, one day at a time, without medals, honors, or veterans' benefits, to the unexciting work of educating our children in civics, registering voters, and working at the polls.
Regardless, one critical responsibility of citizens in a democracy is to let others have their say. I could easily have ignored her message and kept my silence. The problem was, however, that she closed with “I am sure we can all agree on that.”
What’s a patriot to do, if she doesn’t want to endorse a consensus that freedom and militarism are two sides of the same coin?
And what’s a sister to do if she doesn’t want to start an argument on her well-meaning younger sister’s Facebook wall?
I wrote a private message: “Sorry, no, we do not all agree. I don't want to start an argument, but your closing phrase means that if I did not speak up, I will be counted as having agreed. While I sympathize with the surviving family of any war dead--both civilians and soldiers--I cannot endorse the honoring of war or of warriors in general.”
I went on to explain that I believe we would have even more freedom and prosperity if Americans could have shown as much courage for peace over the years as we have shown for war.
Her answer came about 15 minutes later. She neither defended the idea that military action creates and maintains our freedoms nor argued with my contention that they were instead the result of constructive nonviolent action. Instead, she took the ‘as-long-as-there-is-evil-we-need-a-military-defense’ line. I did not respond.
In the 20 months since that exchange, she has written many more Facebook messages supportive of the military in general and of her Army son in particular. I have noticed, however, that the messages are more personal and are presented as her own feelings rather than something she is expressing on behalf of everyone.
That’s a small change, but a good one.