5/28/2018—I wished a man I know a “happy” Memorial Day. He responded that he had served and lost many friends. So, it was not a happy day for him, though an important one.
I am far from a veteran worldview, having never served. It is easy for me to forget just what the meaning of Memorial Day is supposed to be. To remember those who served our Nation and died doing so.
This leads me to the question raised by Dan Rather today—how do we fight for democracy? In one sense, in a military sense, this is not a difficult question. In the Civil War, the North fought against secession that would have destroyed America—the fight was for our country, not directly for democracy. On the other hand, it was also a fight against the slave power that was undemocratic to its core.
Other wars have been over land—against Mexico, for example. Not a fight for democracy.
WWI was complex. But we understand it today usually as a fight against the expansions of Germany and the Austrian Empire. We stood with the other major democracies, Great Britain and France. But we were also acting in self-defense against unrestricted submarine warfare.
WWII was a fight against racism and fascism. Nazi Germany and Japan represented everything that democracy is not. They were powerful totalitarian States. But we fought on the side of the Soviet Union against Hitler, another totalitarian State. The struggle against Communism that followed was more than a contest about majority rule.
And today the fight against Islamic terrorism—whatever that might mean—seems more like a series of actions against criminals. Against violence.
The struggle of Israel against Iran is not a question of democracy, but of something else—international aggression? The Palestinian people are occupied militarily. Certainly their democratic rights are not being respected. And can a religious State really be democratic toward its minority religious population? Not over time if the minority religions threaten to become a new majority.
Randy Barnett, the conservative Georgetown University law professor, told a group of law professors in a 2014 debate, that the point of the Constitution was never democracy. Majority rule is as much a threat to individual liberty as anything else. That is why the Constitution does not enshrine democracy, but limited government and individual rights.
This is why the undemocratic aspects of our political system—the Electoral College, equal representation in the Senate—do not bother Randy. Now, this is more than a bit of hypocrisy on Randy’s part—the framers were not dealing with a two-Party system. They would have rejected minority rule much more than majority rule—and it is minority rule that the undemocratic Constitution is currently delivering.
But Randy does raise the question about what we celebrate when we celebrate democracy. I will put the word freedom in Randy’s mouth. We celebrate and protect a free society on Memorial Day.
Democracy must be a part of that freedom, of course, though Randy might disagree. It is not freedom to be ruled by a minority, which is the situation today.
But the most important defense of democracy is faith in history. I don’t believe a nihilistic culture can be democratic. The most important right is the right of free speech. That is the right of free determination. That is the right to discuss and think. That is the sign of a free society and people—that and the concomitant freedom of the press.
But free speech requires truth as its goal. Otherwise, as Ross Douthat wrote yesterday in the New York Times, free speech is just a procedural right.
We defend democracy when we defend the right of a people to pursue truth. I wish you a solemn Memorial Day.