May 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
How small towns in America weaponize Memorial Day
They use national memory to stop local change.
Monday was Memorial Day. There’s something I’ve been meaning to say. It’s about small towns and what they represent to white people in America. It’s about the choices that small towns make to remember “those who died for our freedom.” It’s about this representation of white America and how it influences national memory. It’s about remembering the past and how remembering it controls the future.
Small towns* don’t have much of a future to look forward to. Whatever industry was there is no longer there or it’s no longer there to the degree that it once was. A small town once known for making, say, clocks – well, what’s there to talk about now that it doesn’t make clocks anymore, now that nothing of equal measure has replaced it?
But people need to glorify something. So they look “abroad” – to a culture that, because it’s broad, is diluted of the grit and tang of time and place. They turn to a national civic culture that’s already been made by myth, legend and propaganda. They turn to a national civic identity, because they can’t or won’t make a local civic identity for themselves.
Some small towns have adapted. Some have recognized that their futures can’t rely on the remaining sons and daughters of the original white people who settled to work in their original industries. Some small towns understand that diversity isn’t valuable in the abstract. They understand its cash value.
They can’t, because the old local identity departed along with the industry. Or they won’t, because the new local identity isn’t the same as the old local identity. (The new identity isn’t white enough. More on that in a moment.) It doesn’t matter that the national civic culture is “imported” from somewhere else. What matters is the need to glorify.
All this points to war memorials.
Every small town, virtually, has at least one memorial that’s given prominence and that’s dedicated to remembering “those who died for our freedom” in times of war. Many small towns put on a parade on Memorial Day. Most parades march down the same “memorial parkway.” Most give voice to the same virtues using the same rhetoric of national civic culture. Most pay the same tribute to the same dead.
By that, I mean they often don’t name the dead. Why? There aren’t a lot of dead, for one thing. (These are small towns, after all. Most young people left along with the industry. Those who stayed, and who died in military service, are fewer in number. Naming them is a reminder of the small town’s former glory days.) For another thing, however, naming the dead might compromise the sameness of one memorial with all the other memorials in all the other small towns around America.
Naming the dead might compromise the connection that each small town has with each of the other small towns. Naming the dead might compromise the faceless features of the national civic culture. It might compromise what small towns achieve in their solidarity with each other, which is far bigger and grander than what they can achieve by themselves. They achieve a representation of “the real America.”
I’m not going to explain why small towns are seen as representative not only of something authentic but something authentically American. We know that they are. We also know that that’s bosh. There’s nothing more authentic about living in, say, Bristol, Connecticut, than there is about living in New Haven (my beloved city). Each is authentic. Both have strengths and weaknesses. Each has its own unique problems.
The difference is that, in Connecticut political circles, Bristol is praised for being authentic while New Haven is accused of being inauthentic. The difference is that Bristol cares, politically, about what New Haven thinks about Bristol while New Haven isn’t aware, politically, that Bristol cares about what New Haven thinks. The difference is that New Haven wants to be New Haven while Bristol wants to be not-New Haven.
Bristol is mostly white (nearly 80 percent).
It wants to stay that way.
New Haven is so busy paying attention to itself that it does not dedicate a place of prominence to war memorials. (This is not to say there are none; there are many.) It does not put on a Memorial Day parade that marches down a “memorial parkway.” (There isn’t one). Like other places, lots of industry left New Haven. Unlike other places, New Haven found a way to maintain its local identity. It did not import a “foreign” one to replace a lost local one. In New Haven, the local identity is us.
In Bristol, as in other small towns, the local identity is not-them.
Small towns often can’t or won’t make their own identities because they often can’t or won’t see beyond what they have been to what they are becoming. They can’t or won’t see what they are becoming, because that would mean recognizing the locals who are shaping their futures.
There’s the problem.
Those locals look terribly close to not-us: to people in places like New Haven who have seen for themselves that their local identities are maintained; who have no need for a national civic culture and its faceless features that have been diluted of the grit and tang of time and place; and who understand that “importing” a national civic culture, and its faceless features, is not about replacing the old local identity. It’s about replacing a new local identity. It’s about replacing them.
Some small towns have adapted. Some have recognized that their futures can’t rely on the remaining sons and daughters of the original white people who settled to work in their original industries. Some small towns understand that diversity isn’t valuable in the abstract. They understand its cash value. They understand its authenticity.
Others, however, won’t.
They will continue to stop change, or attempt to stop change, and they will do this without appearing to. They will appear to be doing nothing more than remembering “those who died for our freedom.”
They are trying to control what locals remember in a bid to control what locals do. Memorial Day celebrations don’t have to be part of that. It’s a shame that they are, but they are. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
*I’m talking about any small town in the country that used to be the center of one or more industries, but is no longer the center after manufacturers either collapsed or sought cheaper labor overseas. I’m talking about any small town that is surviving, economically, but is no longer thriving, that has not thrived in decades. I’m writing in New Haven. The small towns I’m describing are ubiquitous in New England.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.