Last week I wondered about the student protests here in Quebec and the logic of the welfare state. In some conversations on these topics, I was challenged to consider the social meaning of phenomena like this (e.g. public protests of one kind or another). I’ll have some more to say about that later this week, I think, but for now, I think that it is true that from a certain point of view, regardless of the merits of an individual case or instance, the right to assemble, associate, protest, and campaign for a particular viewpoint is one of the curious strengths of modern democracies.
It’s a point especially worth considering on Memorial Day in the United States. The Transom (a fine publication that is well-worth its subscription price) passed along comments from this past February, delivered by Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, to the Gold Star parents. The whole thing is worth reading on and reflecting on in full. But these lines stuck out to me in particular:
And you know that any one of them could have done something more self-serving with their lives as the vast majority of their age group elected to do after high school and college, but no, they chose to serve knowing full well a brutal war was in their future. They did not avoid the most basic and cherished responsibility of a citizen — the defense of country — they welcomed it.
Our kids were the best of the best of their generation, and in their unselfishness put every American ahead of themselves. All are heroes for simply stepping forward, and our people owe a debt they can never fully pay. Their reward for service is the legacy they left behind: selfless valor, the Country we live in, and the freedoms so many take for granted.
What are the freedoms we so often take for granted? They include the right to peaceful demonstration (a key word here being peaceful). This is a right that is respected and fought for by those who may not share the sentiments of those who demonstrate or protest. This is a feature of public space in much of the developed world that is unique to modern democracies: the rights of minority viewpoints to make their case in a public forum.
Indeed, a very common sentiment you’ll hear from military service members is something like this: “I don’t agree with you, but I’ll fight and defend your right to disagree.”
From this perspective, then, even something as morally odious as the demonstrations of the Westboro Baptist Church, and certainly more mundane demonstrations like those of disaffected students, are unintended testimonies to the sacrifices of those that have served, suffered, and died in military service. In the case of Westboro, the very soldiers that the protesters use as an occasion for grandstanding have sacrificed to protect the protesters’ right to be so greatly mistaken.
This, I think, is something worth remembering this Memorial Day.