Monday, May 28, 2012


Matt Boors -

Decoration Day

Every weekday I drive through the Navajo Nation, a vast Reservation that straddles New Mexico and Arizona and is larger than some states "back east," as they call most of what is east of here here. Spread out all across the reservation are little pre-fabricated houses and house trailers. In the morning, if I'm running a little late, there are cars streaming down the dirt roads from those dwellings to the highway as Navajos head off to work in Gallup or Farmington or at the big corporate farm up on the high plateau where, because they have water rights to the San Juan River coming out of the Coloroado Rockies, the Navajo have created a huge agribusiness complex, so highways that were deserted earlier in the morning now can be congested. From my perspective, trying to make up for lost time, it's apparent that many Navajo work, too many, but I don't see many fancy houses on the reservation and they say poverty and drugs are still problems there.

Matt Bors, who did the cartoon, which relates to the announcement by the Census Bureau this week that white births in the US are now in the minority, is a 28-year-old cartoonist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Although the two people in the cartoon are Native American, from what I've read about him these last 20 or 30 minutes I don't see any indication that Bors is Native, however stark a reminder his cartoon is of the attempts made to wipe the original inhabitants of America off the face of the earth first by Hispanic and then by Anglo colonizers.

Bors was born in Canton, in eastern Ohio, which is in the middle of an arc of US industrial cities between Cleveland, Ohio and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, including places like Akron and Youngstown in Ohio, Wheeling in West Virginia and Warren and Sharon in Pennsylvania, an area of big rolling wooded hills and full rivers that I think of as the rustiest part of the Rust Belt. These are all towns where things used to be made like appliances and machinery and tires, and steel. Canton's population, which peaked in 1950 at just under 117,000, is now 70,000, which is indicative of the region's economic decline.

I was born in Norwalk, Ohio, between Cleveland and Toledo, some 80 or 90 miles west of Canton. My dad, who had been a steam crane operator, a paid labor organizer, etc., etc., was by then driving a truck. Norwalk is up on US 20, the Chicago-Cleveland route (I-80 goes through there, too, now) and when my dad drove it was on the US highway system. The interstates went through in the 1960s and 70s.

Now and then, when I'm in that area, I find myself on those old US routes, like US 422, which goes from Cleveland to Pittsburg, or US 30, coming from Chicago, which goes through Canton on its way to Pittsburg. Sometimes it's necessary to take the old route for short distances, but sometimes I just take them for part of a trip just for the fun of it. It' slow going in a loaded semi truck, and unless I have a lot of spare time, I have get back on the interstate, eventually.

Unlike the interstates, the US highways go through those old Rust Belt towns, and all of them are sights to behold. They were made solid, of stone and brick, iron and steel. There are parks and libraries and civic centers. It's all stately, and beautiful.

Last time over there I was in Youngstown, driving in past the looming domed courthouse and granite faced banks, passing row upon row of tidy brick row houses and then up the hill to the nearly, almost abandoned steel mill, past the towering vacant football field length mill buildings of soot-colored brick and glass to the corner of the mill still operating. Many US steel mils are like that, putting out small amounts of specialty orders like wire cable or railroad track.

The architecture of the towns is all Modern, and within that style ranges from that turn of the (20th) century and 1920s "Gilden Age" overweight, somewhat grandiose to a more reservedly decorated (we'd say tasteful) mid 20th century style, by which time they could see, or at least feel, the end of the good times coming and ostentation was passe. Self doubt was entering the American psychological landscape. We know that.

I was reminded this weekend by an article at Liberation, the Party For Socialism And Liberation's newspaper, that Memorial Day used to be Decoration Day. My extended family, farmers on my mother's side and small business owners on my father's, of primarily German and some British (hence the name) descent, usually got together, near the locus of the respective lines, for a holiday they called Decoration Day, although my more modern and well informed parents were already calling it Memorial Day.

Decoration Day seems to have started in Charleston, South Carolina, immediately after the US Civil War, by union occupying troops and freed Black slaves, to honor Union (North) war dead. Southern widows then began to honor the dead of the South. The "decoration" part comes from decorating the graves with flowers and patriotic banners of red, white and blue. Remembrances spread around the country, with each locality or state calling its own Decoration Day and naming the date, but it was all eventually combined into one national holiday in the late 1960s, with a standardized date and the name changed to Memorial Day, and the holiday's conception transformed into a more generic national enshrinement of militarization. Since wars were no longer being fought on US soil, Memorial Day helped shift the idea of war into the realm of religion, where everything happens long ago and far away and instead of honoring individual sacrifice we reinforce feelings of American Exceptionalism, of superiority, just like we do, when we're feeling especially powerless, with religion.

So I've been thinking about all that this weekend, as I see one after another column by Leftists and Liberals all under very similar headlines that go something like -- Honor The Fallen, Care For The Survivors, Stop The Wars, and I've been thinking how clever they must feel and how arrogant they sound because for whatever reason, most Americans are insulted by their calls for pacifism and their denouncements of militarism. I've been thinking about the political polarization in the country, about Jim Crow, about the endless and coming wars, about democracy and the erosion around the edges of the civil liberties that come with it, and about growing inequality, and about America's uncertain future, or, I should say, I had been thinking about those things until I saw Matt Bors' cartoon.

(note: Matt Bors also maintains a web log. He is syndicated in a number of independent weeklies and was a 2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Read more about him in the Canton Repository and The Washington Post.)


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