In places where there’s a majority of some kind, religious, political, or ethnic, that majority frequently enjoys the position of privilege. Privilege cannot help but engender a sense of superiority in those who possess it, even if they don’t realize it. The superior, although they may not think of themselves as such, inevitably adopt a sense of entitlement. The problem with privilege is that those without it are rendered invisible and one cannot respect or consider the invisible, nor does one easily surrender privilege. So we end up with societies where some people struggle against invisibility while others presume claims to universal values and principles; the illusion that majority equals universality.
In 1992 Morrill Worcester ended up with a bunch of Christmas wreaths he couldn’t sell. With the help of his Senator: Olympia Snow, he obtained permission to place these wreaths on some of the older and less visited graves at Arlington National Cemetery. Most of us would agree that was a thoughtful and welcome gesture.
Note however that Mr. Worcester was not entitled to place these wreathes, he had to seek permission, and he needed a US Senator’s help to do it. This is because Arlington National Cemetery is a place where we bury our Nation’s veterans exclusively. Arlington is administered by the government, and it is a place where discrimination is not welcome. Veterans of all ethnicities and religions are entitled to be buried there. In some ways these national cemeteries are the most sacred places in our country since they are recognized as hallowed ground my almost everyone. When you enter one of these cemeteries you are entering a place of dignity and respect, and you are expected to behave accordingly. In a country that celebrates debate and controversy these cemeteries are one of the few places where controversy and discord are not welcome. For this reason, while these are public places, they are governed by rules, one cannot walk around them and place objects of ones’ choosing on all the graves.
As the years went by Mr. Worcester’s thoughtful gesture grew into a non-profit organization called Wreathes Across America with thousands of volunteers placing wreathes in 500 locations across the world. They have a website, a Facebook page, and a motto: “Giving The Christmas They Never Had”. They also have a goal, to place a wreath on EVERY grave site in all the national cemeteries. If you’re starting to have some reservations about this, you’re probably not a Christian and you probably don’t celebrate Jesus’s birthday as a religious holiday. This is where a thoughtful gesture starts to become a thoughtless one.
Obviously celebrating a Christian holiday atop non-Christian grave is a dodgy proposition. Only a privileged majority would even consider themselves entitled to such a project. Ordinarily this would not be a problem, non-Christian graves are clearly marked in National Cemeteries by the symbols on the gravestones (They even have a symbol for Atheists.) so one can easily pass by those who may not want a Christmas wreath settled on their grave. This brings us to the first level of thoughtlessness: ignorance.
The first level of thoughtlessness can usually be forgiven because it’s not intentional. The intention in this case is to honor a fallen veteran by placing a symbol of sacredness on their grave. Because minorities are invisible to majorities to some extent the majority member is not being malicious when they assume their symbols or sacred objects are universal and harmless. The privileged in this case is not deliberately trying to offend, they are merely failing to consider the possibility that their values and beliefs are not shared by everyone, this isn’t evil, but it’s not really “thoughtful” either. Typically a thoughtlessness of the first level is easily and peaceably resolved when someone makes a simple request that something not be done. In this case some Jewish people went on Facebook, and the website and asked that wreathes not be placed on graves marked with a Star of David. At this point, some people jump to the second level of thoughtlessness.
Now let me just say, I could explain why Jews would object to these wreathes, beyond the obvious fact that they are Christmas wreathes… but I’m not going to. The fact is it doesn’t matter, that they make the request is sufficient, that’s all you or I need to know. These cemeteries are a place of dignity and respect, the dead cannot speak for themselves so we must respect those who legitimately speak for them. You are not entitled to be there placing anything on other peoples graves. WAA is there with the permission of the administration, they are not exercising a “right” of any kind. You are not entitled to an explanation, or a debate, or a satisfied curiosity. Someone asks you not to place your wreath on their loved one’s grave, you say “of course” and you move on. Your “intentions” are irrelevant because this place is not about YOU. Good intentions do not give you the right to dishonor the dead, or disregard their representatives. Your understanding is not required, what’s required here is your respect. This much should be obvious.
You may think I’m being rude, especially for a guy who’s lecturing about treating people with respect, but when some Jews made this simple request, instead getting a respectful response, they got disrespect, and animosity. People wanted to know what is the problem? Demands were made for explanations as if they will only consider honoring Jewish dead if a sufficient explanation is given. They argued that these are “holiday” wreathes not Christmas wreaths (as if some other holiday could possibly be the subject of celebration). Jews were told to “get lost” and stop trying to ruin the fun. This frequently happens when minorities emerge from invisibility; the sudden shock of their appearance frequently provokes indignation amongst the privileged. However this is how we turn our national cemeteries into culture war battle grounds, this is NOT how we honor the dead.
If you want to know why these wreathes are objectionable to some Jews, ask a Jew. Or look up the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabean revolt against paganism. Some Jews may be more offended than others, but since you can’t know which is which the obvious course of action is to skip graves with the Star of David on them.
Arguing with someone at a gravesite instead of simply moving on might be forgivable, if you honor the request. However, privilege frequently trumps courtesy so the website and FB pages of Wreathes Across American was littered with photos of wreathed Jewish grave stones the day after the event. This is deliberate, calculated, willful thoughtlessness that actually flirts with desecration. This may not be forgivable.
Now to be sure, in some cases there were simple oversights, bad communication, and logistical screw ups. I doubt that the organizers of WAA actually intend to offend anyone, and I even doubt that the vast majority of volunteers intend any offense. I would assume that once aware, the vast majority of volunteers would be happy to pass by Jewish graves rather than risk offense.
The problem is WAA has now gotten so huge that there are probably just enough assholes amongst the volunteers to make this into an actual controversy. As wingnuts like Bill O’Reilly weigh into the mix you can actually end up with a fight. The most likely outcome given the nature of any bureaucracy is that WAA will be banned from the cemeteries for failing to follow the rules. At that point, Jews would get the blame for launching a liberal attack on a sacred tradition- if they’d just stayed invisible none of this would have happened. This is how responsibility for thoughtless behavior is shifted from the perpetrators onto the victims. This is how minorities are driven back into invisibility.
Fortunately we live in a free country where everyone can demand a certain requisite level of dignity and respect. This guarantees that we who are the majority, will forever be challenged by uppity minorities objecting to our thoughtless behavior. As we atheist like to say: Amen to that.