A time for Thanksgiving, despite some ill winds
Do Americans still believe in their country’s exceptionalism?
November 24, 2009
Besides being a celebratory time, Thanksgiving has its introspective aspects. Most Thanksgiving dinners in which I have participated include the inevitable question, “For what are you thankful?” This year, it might be a bit more difficult to answer that question.
Exactly what are you thankful for? Everyone includes friends and family and often health. There is a danger in such recitations, especially in a friends-and-family environment.
“To omit is to exclude” is what you are taught in law school, when enumerating a large number of things. Therefore, be careful when you answer the Thanksgiving Question lest you commit the sin of omission and hurt someone’s feelings.
But there is more to the Thanksgiving Question. In responding, people often add something special that might have happened to them during the year — a birth, an engagement, a marriage, a simha, a new job, a raise, a promotion, a new home, successfully coming through a serious personal or family crisis.
Some of these thanks might be harder to find this year, given the shape of the economy and its direct or indirect effects on people and their families.
Thanks for a new job may be replaced by thanks for still having a job. Thanks for a raise may be replaced by thanks for a salary that wasn’t cut and the ability to still pay the mortgage.
Some people give thanks for the privilege of being in this great country of ours. I am one of them. I am thankful for our form of government, our economic opportunities, and our constitutionally guaranteed personal freedoms.
Many people take these benefits of American citizenship or residency for granted. They may become uncomfortable when someone says something that borders on an expression of patriotism in their presence.
Worse are those who look on the United States with embarrassment and, sometimes, even contempt. This group would take you to task for speaking up for America because, in their view, almost nothing positive can be said for America. Instead, they apologize for our country and argue that the United States needs to be made over.
To this group, I say, paraphrasing Churchill, “This is the worst country, except for all others.”
You see, I believe in American exceptionalism. I have to thank my late father for that. He was a consummate patriot and cheerleader for America. His zeal was a reason that I, as a child, scoured the almanac for statistics to demonstrate that the United States was in first place. Steel production, electricity generation, number of cars, you name it — it didn’t matter as long as the United States held first place in the category.
Equivalents of chants like “U-S-A — U-S-A” and “U.S. is number one” were not for sports competitions in my house when I was growing up. They were statements of fact and pride that were used for education.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I am concerned that I might not be saying thank you for the America I admire much into the future. My fear echoes a caution expressed over a millennium and a half ago by the sages in Pirkei Avot 2:3:
“Be careful in your relations with the government, for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress.”
I am worried that the trend in America is for the government to assume more power at the expense of individual liberty and responsibility and with disregard for constitutional restraints. This power expansion is being financed by mortgaging the futures of our children and grandchildren. “They draw no man close to themselves, except for their own interests.”
This Thanksgiving do a mind experiment and travel 20 years, one generation, into the future, to your children’s or grandchildren’s Thanksgiving Day celebration. For what do you think they will be giving thanks?
In the United States, each prior generation left improved conditions in which the following generation would be better off. When you look 20 years into the future, will you be able to say we have successfully kept that great tradition? “Will you be pleased with your children’s responses to the Thanksgiving Question?”
This Thanksgiving I will join those I love and will give thanks for being together for another year in this exceptional country, and I will reach out by phone to those who cannot be with me but with whom I want to share the holiday. And today, that is reason enough to give thanks.