A Muslim friend of mine mentioned celebrating Thanksgiving, and then I overheard someone else quietly comment 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.
Thanksgiving is a time to (drum roll, please) give thanks, for many things. For instance, we are often critical of the direction our country is headed. Right now there is unrest in the Middle East, and the alignments among the various countries suggest apocalyptic potential. 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. I think it’s important to remember that. 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. And in WWII, there were multiple times that it wasn’t clear that the United States would survive. For those of us who didn’t live through it, it is hard to imagine but until the Battle of Midway we weren’t all that confident that our country would survive Axis ambitions. Even after that, there were great periods of uncertainty; the night before the Normandy Invasion, Eisenhower was so pessimistic that he wrote a letter accepting complete responsibility for the failure of the operation.
It is our job 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, and even 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 the big picture doesn’t make sense to any one individual; equality creates an amoeba, acting and reacting, in intelligent ways that are not obvious except 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, and never did anything right. Today, there are 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.)
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 negativity and whole-cloth rejection 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, they 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. In my literary dabblings, I have always thought that two of the conservative philosophers, Edmund Burke and Bernard Mandeville, are the scoundrels of philosophy. Not scoundrels because they are dishonest, but because their contrarian approaches make a little too much sense. While traditional philosophy critiques what is, and urges us toward some ideal, these two conservatives respond with a rather embarrassing argument: ‘But look, it works like it is.’
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 comfort of the matches. And today, while we fill our bellies on this 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, 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 president is too stupid. They wouldn’t fret overmuch about pollution 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.
Picture courtesy of VintagePrintable.com. I chose a dandelion partly because, like all of us, it is a transplant from somewhere else. Also, like all Americans, it is common, everyday, and hard to eradicate. And it is magical. The leaves make a strong salad, the heads make a particular wine, the flowers add beauty to the world, and the floating, flying seeds give delight to children.