Purely Noteworthy

Folklorists are an irreverent lot, operating out of the assumption that we humans, all of us, like to clump up with those who share our delusions. Religious beliefs and other forms of piety are just one more source of mockery for these heretics. In everyday society they aren't marginalized to the degree you might expect because they are hard to spot. They prefer to pass unnoticed, smiling and nodding, then slipping off to record what you just said about your in-laws or other adversaries.

If it turns out that they are wrong (and the Universalists are right) you'll be able to spot them in paradise with no harp in their hands and a small notebook and pencil up their sleeve. They'll pass these around and snigger. No respect. But they need not wait for heaven. The internet has brought them their Reward.

I'll provide a little background (from a much quoted folklorist and Snopes.com) and then the latest example of lore to land in my inbox. The background: Mary Douglas wrote a book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, which sets out an explanation for conventional attitudes in European-sourced cultures. She suggests that there's a sacred nature to both extremes of good and bad in the western tradition. Good equals pure, while the impure or polluted is not only bad, it's dangerous, because the impure contaminates whatever it touches. Sociologists have validated much of this, expressed as moral values. Conservatives, for instance, prefer strict boundaries between good and bad and identify the good with purity, cleanliness, and loyalty. Liberals and nonbelievers: not so much. In one famous measure of people of different religious traditions, Unitarians ranked cleanliness dead last in value. Not because they prefer the unclean but because it's a personal choice, not good or bad in itself. As for loyalty: you just have to know them. A committee of ten has 30 perspectives on any question. And quite a few folklorists in the mix.

Anyway, here's the electronic pass-around, on the subject of the tomb of the unknown soldier. A considerable number of actual photographs and a few verifiable facts are presented along with assertions like this: "The shoes are specially made with very thick soles to keep the heat and cold from their feet. There are metal heel plates that extend to the top of the shoe in order to make the loud click as they come to a halt..."

True enough. Now, do you believe this? "There are no wrinkles, folds or lint on the uniform. Guards dress for duty in front of a full-length mirror. The first six months of duty a guard cannot talk to anyone nor watch TV. All off duty time is spent studying the 175 notable people laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery." Okay, they do dress in front of a mirror. But spending all their time picking lint from their uniform and reading about notable people? No conversation with anyone for 6 months? That's a guard against impure influences, I guess. Now consider: "They must commit 2 years of life to guard the tomb, live in a barracks under the tomb, and cannot drink any alcohol on or off duty for the rest of their lives. They cannot swear in public for the rest of their lives and cannot disgrace the uniform or the tomb in any way." Whoah! Live under the tomb? Without talking to anyone, not even their cellmates? No alcohol, ever never? Now THAT would protect them from impure influences, keep them out of the bars and away from bad women, wouldn't it?

As for loyalty, consider this: "After two years, the guard is given a wreath pin that is worn on their lapel signifying they served as guard of the tomb... The guard must obey these rules for the rest of their lives or give up the wreath pin." Snopes says that they may be awarded a special badge for exemplary duty, and they may lose it for misbehavior, but nobody is following them around to make sure they never, say 'damme' or lift a beer.

There's more, but that's enough. What Mary Douglas suggests, (and my dear Methodist friend, who sends me such gems, illustrates) is that the pure is not questioned. Where, for instance, are the superior officers for these guards? Don't they have dry cleaning and laundry services, or is there a vast complex of servants, food service, etc. all underneath the graves of Arlington? And by the way, where's the entrance? Hidden in a maintenance shed, is my guess.

The impure is not questioned, either. If I were in charge, I'd allow NPR, if not Comedy Central. And a little conversation at mealtimes, for goodness sake. This isn't a monastery. Or is it? It seems that these pure-hearted soldiers are so loyal that no sacrifice is too great. The email concludes, "On the ABC evening news, it was reported that because of the dangers from the hurricane, the military members assigned the duty of guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were given permission to suspend the assignment. They respectfully declined the offer, "No way, Sir!" Soaked to the skin, marching in the pelting rain of a tropical storm, they said that guarding the Tomb was not just an assignment, it was the highest honor that can be afforded to a serviceperson."

I have nothing more to add. I'm putting my little notebook away, for now.

Jeanette Ross, July 19, 2010