What If We Celebrate Death Because We Don't Value Life? Memorial Day Reflections On Heroism

(WXIR-Rochester) Memorial Day is traditionally framed as an occasion to celebrate the heroism of those who made the "ultimate sacrifice."

But when our society comes to glorify sacrifice as the dominant mode of civic engagement, as an unquestionable form of civic duty, what does this mean for the possibility of creating a more just and sustainable model of life?

These are some of the questions recently posed by scholar and Rochester Democratic Socialist of America member Lisa Cerami.

Cerami says one possible antidote to a society organized around self-sacrifice might be one organized around solidarity, noting that RocDSA and other groups have been working to build such a society during the COVID-19 pandemic through initiatives like the Rochester Mutual Aid Network.

Cerami recently spoke with WXIR's Darien Lamen about the meaning of heroism in a post-9/11, COVID-19 era.



DARIEN LAMEN: This past Monday was Memorial Day and Monroe County officials marked the occasion by breaking ground on a new war memorial in Highland Park. County Executive Adam Bello said the new War on Terror Memorial will pay tribute to members of the military who died overseas since 1990.

ADAM BELLO: This will be an enduring reminder of what it takes to be the land of the


DL: Over the last 30 years more than 7,000 US soldiers have been killed in America's wars abroad. Over 300 of them listed New York as their home state and at least 17 of those lived in Monroe County.

Memorial Day is traditionally framed as an occasion to celebrate the heroism of those who made the quote ultimate sacrifice. But when our society comes to glorify sacrifice as the dominant mode of civic engagement, what does this mean for the possibility of creating a more just social reality or a more sustainable model of life?

These are some of the questions recently posed in a Memorial Day Facebook post by Lisa Cerami. She's a scholar of German literature and culture, as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Rochester chapter. She's joining us now by phone.

Lisa, thanks for being with us today. You begin your post by writing that on a day that is supposed to mark the sacrifice of fallen soldiers, it is hard not to think about the nose dive our concept of heroism has taken. So can you just lay out what you mean by that?

LISA CERAMI: Hi, thanks, Darien. I was thinking specifically about the way that I feel we have discursively framed heroism, since, just a shorthand 9/11, where we start talking about the hero as someone who dies. That is to say, the victims of 9/11 are heroes in so far as they died. And how that notion of losing one's life or that notion of having been sacrificed, that is to say, not what one does but what one gives up or how one diminishes, how that intimately connects with how we understand the heroic.

I've posited that the institutionalization of Memorial Day as a federal holiday during the Vietnam War, when we had an anti-war movement and we had people fighting for the right to refuse to die, I would say the entire notion of valuing their death is so that we don't actually have to value their lives, right? We're not talking about the value of their life. We're not talking about the need to think about whether or not this is actually worth it.

In one of my classes we read the story of Beowulf, a medieval story in which, as a young man he fights a variety of monsters. And as an older man he fights a largely pointless war against the dragon and dies. The story itself does not value Beowulf's sacrifice. The tale is very clear that it was absolutely in vain.

And it was interesting watching how difficult it was for my students to come around to the fact that dying in this battle didn't make him a hero. That dying in this battle, according to the gesture of the story, made him an idiot. It was a battle he didn't have to fight. He fought it only out of a sense of self-grandeur and hubris.

But there was this sense that they all had that, no, the act of fighting and dying for what you believed in was good and right and heroic. And I wanted to say, but why do we attach so much value to the idea of dying so long as it's on behalf of a thing? Why aren't we thinking about what that thing is? Whether or not that thing actually has value, and whether our lives are worth more than that?

DL: So I wanted to ask you to talk about how you see this idea of heroism-as-sacrifice playing out in the local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We see for example the use of military metaphor in talking about those on the "frontlines." And while our region in the Finger Lakes is poised to begin Phase 2 of the so-called economic reopening sometime soon, Monroe County is reporting the highest number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 yet and 211 deaths to date. So, can you just explain a little bit further how you see this idea of heroism-as-sacrifice, sacrifice-as-civic engagement, working in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic?

LC: I think we see it all over the place. When we're talking about economics, we talk about the sacrifices we have to make even just for the economy. That going back to work is some kind of duty and putting one's life on the line in their workplace is the fulfillment of a kind of duty.

The way that what are now called frontline workers are venerated for a kind of heroism that really is a matter of like facing a kind of a threat, a threat that could be however minimized significantly with better working conditions, with a better healthcare system, and so on and so forth.

DL: You suggest in your Facebook reflection that the antidote for a society organized around sacrifice is one organized around solidarity. So I wanted to end by asking you what you think that means, and what examples of that you've seen here locally in Rochester.

LC: People understand that this is terrible situation. And a lot of people think about solidarity in terms of, What can I give up too? I need to sacrifice myself either really or symbolically, but mostly symbolically, in order to show that I care about the suffering.

But I think that thinking about solidarity in terms of actually working together in ways of mutual aid, and a great example locally that we've seen since the advent of coronavirus and the crisis that we've been facing has been the growth of DSA's Rochester Mutual Aid Network. Serving as a site for the community to check in both with what they might have to offer. But also, I need this kind of support, how can I find it? And it puts people in contact to create networks within our communities of finding and identifying what needs we have and trying to alleviate those with the means that we have.