Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 2004 / 11 Kislev 5765
Giving thanks in trying times
My colleague (translation: "boss") Rich Lowry - editor of National Review - received a note from the father of a Marine fighting in Fallujah. In it the proud father recounted what his son had told him. Many residents of that besieged town left bedding for the Marines and soldiers, along with notes thanking them for liberating their town from the terrorists and inviting them to sleep in their homes if necessary.
Every day, I receive wonderful, uplifting, heart-wrenching e-mails from Marines and soldiers or their families with similar stories of Iraqis expressing their gratitude and relief that the Americans are doing the hard work of democracy and decency (the latter being vastly more important than the former). I also receive - or read on obscure Internet sites - astounding tales of courage and sacrifice by America's Finest. But we hear so very little of it from the media. Our debates, our discussions - our very understanding of the war - is derived from the bad news: pictures of a Marine allegedly shooting an unarmed man, car bombs, beheadings, the Abu Ghraib fiasco, the idiotic chirpings of the French government and the griping of corrupt UN officials.
But, if you're still with me, this isn't a column about media bias and anti-war carping. There's plenty of time for all of that throughout the rest of the year. No, since Thanksgiving is here it only seems appropriate to point to a larger lesson and a greater reason to give thanks.
Of course, I am Thankful for everything our troops have done and are doing (and if you are, too, you should send a care package or phone card via the USO or several of the other programs: operationgratitude.com, ustroopcarepackage.com, etc.).
But there is a bigger picture that gets lost in our focus on the negative. This is a wonderful, decent nation, brimming with millions of people who take people as they find them and do what is right because that is their character. Moreover, the United States is chock-a-block with institutions, customs and, most of all, families that encourage and foster good character as an end in itself
Because our culture is so obsessed with self-improvement and self-correction, we tend to lose sight of this fact. The squeaky wheels get greased, and we ignore the smooth-running ones.
And that's good. One of the things that makes America so special, the jewel in the crown of Western Civilization, is that we can find fault with ourselves. We criticize, hector, debate, protest our ideas, our civil institutions, our employers, our governments - remember, our republic has literally thousands of governments, if you count from the local to the federal - and ourselves. Not all criticisms are fair or accurate, and some are just plain silly. But when an idea is valid we adopt and nurture it. We discard bad ideas and bad habits as a matter of reflex, making us the most adaptable people in the history of the world. Which is not to say we couldn't be quicker to throw some of the clunkier bits of the welfare state into history's dustbin.
This impulse toward self-correction doesn't necessarily, or even primarily, take a political form. Capitalism, the circulatory system of the West, constantly rewards improvement. The scientific method, which has been part of our culture for more than a century, systematically roots out flaws and seeks new insights. Our religious heritage, perhaps most of all, emphasizes the need for constantly trying to live a better and more decent life.
Regardless, whether it is in the private or public realms, the important thing to remember is that what defines Western Civilization is not the parade of horribles we get from the table-thumpers of the academic world and the media. Racism, greed, sexism, bigotry, slavery: These are universals in human history and still exist today around the world. No, the triumph of the West, and America in particular, is the constant, relentless effort to improve what Francis Bacon called man's estate.
If we were even remotely as bad as our critics overseas believe us to be, all of the mavericks, troublemakers and whistleblowers wouldn't be mavericks, troublemakers and whistleblowers. They would either be silent or they'd be in unmarked graves.
For every politician who takes a bribe, every journalist who plagiarizes, every husband who hits his wife, every child who cheats, there are multitudes who do none of these things, not because they are saints or heroes, but simply because they are human beings raised in this good and decent land. Yes, I am proud of and thankful for the real heroes risking and sacrificing everything in Iraq. But on this Thanksgiving, let's also be thankful and proud that the thing these heroes are defending is so gloriously worth it.
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