Some Thanksgiving thoughts: beyond our one day to focus on the bounty of the modern world, we too often forget to be grateful the rest of the year.
A Secular Thanksgiving
A Muslim friend of mine mentioned celebrating Thanksgiving. After he left, I overheard someone else quietly mutter that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday.
I’m not so sure. I can’t imagine that the Pilgrims failed to notice that a few of their dinner guests had a decidedly heathenish look about them.
I want to share some Thanksgiving thoughts. For instance, both parties are concerned about the direction our country is headed. Right now there is unrest in the Middle East and the Pacific Rim, with apocalyptic potential. Our national news is full of corruption, scandal, even accusations of treason. I don’t know anyone who is happy with any of it.
Every generation has had worries about our government, going right back to 1776, and we should keep that among our Thanksgiving thoughts. The Founders of the country had to be a bit nervous about rebelling against the 18th century superpower that England represented, and more than one officer at Valley Forge must have questioned the wisdom of the whole mess. The Civil War appeared to be the end of a unified nation at several points in the conflict. In WWII, there were multiple times that it wasn’t clear that the United States would survive; it is hard to imagine today but until the Battle of Midway, we weren’t all that confident that our country would survive Axis ambitions. Even after that Battle, there were great periods of uncertainty. The night before the Normandy Invasion, Eisenhower was so pessimistic about the chances for Allied success that he wrote a letter accepting complete responsibility for the failure of the operation.
So each generation has its worries, and each generation criticizes the government over its concerns. Of course, it is our responsibility to criticize our government. But I would like to propose, on this Thanksgiving, that it is also our job to be grateful for our government. It is important that we take time occasionally to marvel that the whole is much, much larger than the sum of the parts. The genius of liberty, of democracy, of the free market, and freedom of expression, is that it liberates the genius in everyone. It doesn’t matter that no one individual can comprehend the entirety of it, that no one can see ‘the big picture’. Equality creates an amoeba, with a myriad of parts which are acting and reacting, in generally intelligent ways that only become obvious in retrospect.
There are always those who can find nothing right about government. In the 1960’s, it was the left who argued that the government was the enemy. Government protesters refused to admit that our nation ever did anything right. More recently, there have been some on the right who can find little positive to say. They proudly declaim that America is the greatest country on earth, and then run it down. (And of course, there are those on the left who argue the same about those on the right.)
Today, both sides are disgusted.
Conservatives Pro & Con
The right, however, is more interesting to me for a couple of reasons. For one, the deeply religious are often aligned with the right, and it seems to me that the current negativity and whole-cloth rejection from the hard right reflect a certain lack of faith. That might include a lack of faith in the Almighty, but it also reflects a lack of faith in other people, and even in the democratic process. People disagree, we part ways on decisions. But we all learn, we all grow, we all react. Many paths will take us forward. To immediately reject any viewpoint or approach that does not match ours seems a bit faithless.
But the other reason goes to philosophy, and questions about the meaning of ‘conservative’. In my literary dabblings, I have always thought that the two conservative philosophers, Edmund Burke and Bernard Mandeville, are the scoundrels of philosophy. Not scoundrels because they are dishonest, but because they are too honest. Their contrarian approaches make a little too much sense. While the rest of traditional philosophy critiques reality and urges us toward some ideal, these two conservatives respond with a rather embarrassing argument: Look, it works anyway.
It doesn’t work for everyone, of course. In the time of Burke and Mandeville, the poor died their quiet deaths, from disease, hunger, and misuse. The only fiction in Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Match Girl‘ was the flickering comfort of her matches. Children have died of cold and hunger on the streets of our first cities, in earliest civilization. And today, while we fill our bellies on our national feast day, it is good to remember that our ancestors could not imagine our luxury.
Nor can much of the world today. Millions of people live with famine, war, epidemics, persecution, oppression. If we think the country is headed in the wrong direction, it is good to remind ourselves that those people would gladly switch with us.
They would not complain that our taxes are too high. They would not worry that our corporations are too greedy. They would not think our Congress is too incompetent. They wouldn’t argue that our teachers are underpaid and our schools are failures. They wouldn’t fret overmuch about the rising poisons in the earth or in our food. They wouldn’t find our politics to be all that polarized, and they wouldn’t complain that our crime rate is outrageous.
They would just be grateful.
Very, very grateful.
Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want courtesy of Wikimedia.