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Celebrating Dead People
Dana Williams
Our holidays are littered with tribute to dead people. Especially dead White men. Occasionally people like Martin Luther King Jr. can be celebrated, but usually it's dead presidents. And Jesus. There's nothing wrong with this practice, per se, except when it creates false images, and thus false history. And the idea of worshiping the memory of a single dead person-- to the absence of the thousands of others who are likely equally deserving of recognition-- is cult worship.

Unfortunately, dead people get sanitized to the level of acceptability by the reigning status quo. Thus, the brutal leaders become saints and the compassionate revolutionaries become safe fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good leaders.

For example, why should we celebrate George Washington, who was a slave owner and the single wealthiest man in the new United States of America? Why not celebrate the abolitionists (or the slaves who died under Washington's captivity)? Why not celebrate all the poor and indentured servants of the colonies who were conscripted against their will to fight for the aristocracy-- who had the most to gain from independence from Great Britain?

Why is Theodore Roosevelt's face on Mount Rushmore (sacred Native land, no less)? He was a racist, imperialist, and scornful man who remarked that America "needs a war". Why have an agent of genocide like Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill? He was almost solely responsible for the murder of the Seminole nation of Floria and the infamous forced death march now known as the Trail of Tears.

And, "liberals" still mourn the loss of John F. Kennedy, claiming he would have pulled the US out of Vietnam had he not been assassinated, thus saving thousands of American lives (they rarely mention the millions of Indonchinese lives who would've been saved by such an act). Yet, there is no proof that JFK was even considering such a move-- if anything, he was escalating the war in Vietnam, as shown by now released internal documents.

Why do we create false history for these people? Why do we hold them up as ideal Americans (let alone ideal human beings), when they were far from that? It is likely because the status quo benefits from the myth that past leaders were not bad people (or that the system itself if bad), but that perhaps a few mistakes were made. Therefore, the oppressed will only look forward to the future with optimism (as opposed to more of the same).

The opposite happens with those who are true people's heroes. When the State does accept some of them, their message and actions are watered down to the point of sterility. MLK is a perfect example of this: how many people actually knew that King spoke out against what he saw as the "three pillars of evil" in America-- racism, poverty, and militarism? We all know about his civil rights work, but who remembers his work organizing a poor people's march or his powerful statements against the Vietnam War?

Or to go further back in time, how often is it mentioned that Jesus was a pacifist? That he was opposed to violence of all kinds, opposed to economic oppression, opposed to corruption? Many Christians still only acknowledge a Jesus who was the son of a vengeful God, who justified war, homophobia, slavery, and oppression of women.

How will the people's heroes of today be remembered by the powers-that-be? Will America make a new holiday for Noam Chomsky when he dies? Or for the recently departed Phillip Berrigan? But, how about all the women out there? Who will be making holidays for Angela Davis, Winona LaDuke, or Gloria Steniem? And how about those who's deaths have already come, but will likely never be remembered, people like Mother Jones, Emma Goldman, A.J. Muste, Caesar Chavez, Fanny Lou Hamer, or Eugene Debs? Where are all the holidays, remembrance services, plaques, national monuments named after these people?

When you celebrate the lives of dead people, do you do it because they're lives have meaning for you today? Or do you do it because everyone else does? If you need the heroes of the status quo, of the powerful, of the dominant classes to feel good about your life today, then how far have we really come as a people, as a nation, or as a society?

We should be celebrating Harriet Tubman, the Magon brothers, Sitting Bull, Kate Richards O'Hare, and Frederick Douglass. We need to remember the Haymarket Martyrs, the interned Japanese Americans during WWII, the massacred Lakotans, the Freedom Riders, and the Wobblies.

Forget Lincoln-- celebrate the abolitionists. Forget LBJ-- celebrate the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Forget the MacArthurs-- celebrate the Quakers and the Mennonites.

We need true histories. We don't necessarily need heroes, but we need reference points. We have to know there were people who have struggled for a better world, and that the struggle can and must continue.

01/17/03