Back in October, as an anti-tribute to Columbus Day, I wrote a post on federal holiday legitimacy that included this chart:
1. First, to what degree would the event be celebrated/commemorated absent the federal holiday. Was the holiday significant prior to government recognition? Would it be without it? Does the private sector shut down? In essence, is the government holiday just a reflection of private reality, or is the holiday driven by the law.
2.Second, to what degree is the day off itself a cultural event. Do people get together with family or friends? Are there parades? Do you go over and see your neighbors for a barbecue? Do you think/talk about it at your dinner table? In essence, to what degree do you know its a holiday besides the fact that you aren’t going to work.
Columbus Day is the obvious loser on both these dimensions.
But the holiday coming up on Monday — which at the federal level is “Washington’s Birthday,” not “President’s Day” — is actually my least favorite holiday. Not because it’s the second least-legitimate under my dispassionate rubric. There’s that, but it’s mOre because I actually don’t believe in the underlying sentiment. Whereas I think Columbus Day is silly, I think Washington’s Birthday is fundamentally wrong. I don’t like the veneration of war service. And God knows I’m not really a big fan of the Presidency. Really, not a fan. Not at all.
But mostly, I just don’t believe in the idea of political courage, or that elected officials should be considered heroes for their political actions. I think Profiles in Courage is more or less bullshit. Democracy, for me, isn’t the story of good and evil men battling it out, with outcomes hinging on the character of individual key players. But our culture tends to reinforce that premise: that a few individual men produced our government in the 1780’s, and brought down slavery, and ended segregation, and defeated fascism and communism. President Washington was undoubtedly an important President who did many great things for our country. But he didn’t do them alone, and he wasn’t a divine right king. To make it out like he was just gives me the willies, like some sort of totalitarian state. Henry the 8th surely had holidays for himself. Kim Jong-il too. We don’t need them.
In reality, most of the important historical developments in our democracy were the complicated result of national or international coordination, with massive numbers of people — at both the low and elite levels — involved in the effort. But leave that aside. Even if we could pin something like the triumph over slavery on a few people, it’s not obvious to me that they were courageous. For instance, the leading antebellum Republicans weren’t exactly courageously going against their constituents when they promoted anti-slavery policies!
The historical triumphs of American democracy are a credit to the institutional structure and its ability to wring moral justice from an arrangement of government that, ex ante, preferences neither the good nor the right, but instead just the popular. It’s a testament not to individual leaders, but to a system and a people, and to the wonders of democratic government; ideas — no matter how unpopular at first — can and do matter. But leaders? I’m very skeptical, at least beyond the margins. Can skillful leaders accomplish more than weak ones? Sure. Are successful leaders more skilled or responsible for the outcomes than unsuccessful ones? I’m not convinced. And so, if it were up to me, I’d just assume get their pictures off the money, stop naming roads and buildings after them, and stop pretending that to win a national election is tantamount to a blessing from God.
And look, I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon. Anyone who reads this blog probably knows that I’m a hopeless romantic sucker for democracy and its ritual pageantry. I love voting. I love the State of the Union address. I also don’t have a strong beef against the holiday — this isn’t that big of a deal and, heck, I like the day off. But it definitely gives me the creeps. Of course, call me a hypocrite, but I love the National Mall. And yet, when I’m down there, I can’t shake the idea that the Washington Monument is the worst of all the memorials. Because it doesn’t pay tribute, really, to anything of substance; it’s all about a man. The Lincoln Memorial lets you read Lincoln’s second inaugural and the Gettysburg Address. In effect, it’s a tribute to a set of ideas, as expressed by a man. Ditto with the Jefferson Memorial.
I’d be much happier with Washington/Lincoln’s birthday replaced with something like a Constitution Day holiday, and MLK Jr.’s birthday replaced with an Abolition Day holiday or a “we beat segregation” day of some sort. But since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I’m just as happy with a Washington’s Birthday that no one cares about. And so on Monday there will be sales at the stores and people will relax with their families. A lot of people won’t even have the day off. And not a whole lot of people will think about President Washington. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing.