A Rare Exception to the NPR Woke Regime
Plus, something for Thanksgiving
Adapted from a bit on an earlier Substack entry.
And here’s an essay I wrote for First Things last year around this time, with a slightly longer version below. Happy Thanksgiving!
For an American Culture of Thanksgiving
For most Americans in 2022, Thanksgiving is a day off work, perhaps also an occasion to gather with family to eat more than one should. Its history and its cultural meaning are shrouded for most of us. Perhaps some elements of a mythologized colonial event come to mind, fondly for some, with the venomous spite of Woke resentment for many others. Few will think of Thanksgiving as a broad cultural ethic that should extend beyond a day late in November to mold the entirety of American social life.
This is because we are so embarrassingly, pathologically far from the healthy cultural space that produced the Thanksgiving ethic. Contemporary American culture has two dominant faces, seemingly opposed but in fact deeply symbiotic, neither of which can sustain us as a people.
The first American cultural face is Egoist America. It is blustering, overconfident, and embarrassingly superficial. It is the attitude of many who exercise the lion’s share of power in this society, economic and, through their control of the economy, cultural and political as well. One might imagine its statement of its core values thus: “I alone am the best, clearly superior to all others who do not even deserve to be ranked because the game at hand can have but one winner and second place through last place are indistinguishable, all losers. My superiority is evident in my material success. Look at my money! Look at all the things I own! Look at how my power increases daily through my production of things coupled with my efforts to convince my fellow citizens, often against their own best interests, that their lives are unfulfilled and incomplete unless they purchase and consume, in abundance, the things I make! Am I not a god?”
The second American cultural face is equally interested in wielding power, but it does so through a moral mechanism it borrowed, and then warped beyond all recognition, from a Christian religious ethic that it despises. The assertion of power in this second cultural face of America takes place through claims of moral superiority as an eternally suffering victim. We can call it Victim America and its core values might be expressed in words like these: “I am the best of all, clearly superior to all others because I suffer more than they do. I accomplish nothing beyond endlessly proclaiming my own helplessness, but that is not my fault. In fact, it is a badge of my exceptional status because it is only the constant withering oppression I have faced from the many who despise me that has kept me from attaining the heights I otherwise would have achieved. Look at my victimhood! Look at all the ways in which my identity is disadvantaged, disparaged, discriminated against, and disregarded! Look at how my superiority shows through in the righteous anger I have about the injustice of every single moment of my life! Am I not a god?”
Imagine a third possible American cultural face, one that took seriously the ethic of Thanksgiving.
That ethic is grounded in humble gratitude, in quiet and respectful thankfulness for every undeserved gift we have been given by a God who owes us nothing. Every one of us, no matter how high or low, regardless of our personal story, every one of us has received such gifts. Every one of us is the recipient of overflowing bounty that we manage, in our conceit and in our inattention, to overlook and forget almost all the time: the health we enjoy; the love we receive from our family and friends; the purpose of our work; the lives we live, however troubled, however fraught with cares and concerns and stress and struggles; the mere fact that we are here, and we experience the gift of being in this world, breathing, feeling, seeking.
Such an ethic was present in America at the beginning. It was outlined for us as a national political project by our first president at his first inaugural address. On April 30, 1789, George Washington pledged to take up, with zeal and dedication, the office to which he had been called by his fellows, notwithstanding his strong desire to retire to the calm of private life after the incalculable service he had already given his country. He spoke, in a humble language that today sounds as though it comes from a different kind of being altogether, of the anxiety he felt that he might not be up to the magnitude of the task. But he found the required courage in invoking the moral force outside him to which he gratefully acknowledged an unpayable debt:
“It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of man more than those of the United States. Every step by which we have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
In early October of that same year, at the request of both houses of Congress, the first President proclaimed that November 26 should be a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. Thanksgiving as a national holiday was not finally officially enshrined in its present form until after the Civil War, but Washington set the tone from the earliest moments of our Republic.
Finding the way back to the ethic of thanksgiving, not just for a day in November but as a permanent return to the moral space articulated by our first President, is perhaps the only means by which we can save ourselves from the inevitable dissolution of Egoist America and Victim America.
All Things Rhapsodical is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.