Jewish World Review Nov. 25, 1999/17 Kislev, 5760
America's real worth
Abraham Lincoln called for a day of national thanksgiving at
a time when there wasn’t much to cheer about. War was splitting the country.
European nations were looking on with the detachment of cats observing dying
mice. And Lincoln was mourning a dead son and a broken wife.
Still, his proclamation began on a note of hope: “We have been the
recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these
many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and
power as no other nation has ever grown.
“But,” he cautioned, “we have forgotten G-d. ... Intoxicated with unbroken
success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of
redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the G-d that made us.”
He thus urged his countrymen “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of
November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who
dwelleth in the heavens.”
Lincoln appreciated something we don’t: We ought to give thanks not because
we are large, rich, powerful, virtuous or happy -- but just because we are.
In the 134 years since our greatest president’s death, the world has
overcome horrors far worse than the Civil War. Now, having prevailed over
Nazism and Communism, we feel a spreading sense of triumph. As the embers of
the Cold War cool to ash, we even harbor Panglossian fantasies of prosperity
Unfortunately, our feelings of conquest rest on a shaky foundation. We may
have defeated Marxism, but we have retained its worst remnant -- a public
obsession with money.
For most of this century, Babbits and Socialists alike have measured
America’s greatness (or lack thereof) by tallying its assets. The standard
Thanksgiving declamation begins with a tribute to Pilgrims and ends with
some gush about commerce. In this way, an anagogic holiday has slid into
I owe this insight not to Lincoln, but to my 2-year-old daughter. She
recently insisted that I pick her up so she could say: “Daddy. Do you know
that I can go outside and laugh? And play?” She beamed as she spoke, letting
the “l’s” roll playfully from her tongue, like strewn jewels.
She loves mundane wonders, such as blades of grass and crickets in the
hearth. This contrasts vividly with politicians who praise such things as
factories and government offices -- treating people as incidental
participants in the March of History.
The recent debate about the federal budget illustrates the tendency to
treat cash as our leading social indicator. Democrats and Republicans alike
defended their votes by reciting what they intended to spend.
This is idiocy. When rich uncles attempt to purchase affection rather than
earning it, they destroy joy and sew cynicism. The same goes for legislators
who purr with affection as they pilfer our wages.
Sometimes, the monetary obsession encourages evil. Think about the
health-care debate. Politicians want to “humanize” HMOs by forcing them to
pinch pennies while performing a broader range of services. This emphasis on
“efficient compassion” puts the coin before the patient -- and gives a
subtle boost to such causes as “death with dignity” statutes.
After all, the euthanasia movement urges snuffing out people who cost too
much. A bedridden grandma, the argument goes, will feel like a burden and
eventually lose her self-esteem. As her mental and physical ailments
multiply, loved ones will want to relieve her agony. So they will pump her
full of painkilling poison.
Having reduced life to a cost-benefit transaction, euthanasia advocates
throw open the door to murder -- which is what Dutch doctors now perform
without aging patients’ consent.
When men exalt themselves as the measure of all things, they treat others
as chattels. Today, politicians condone various thuggery -- snooping on
citizens, auditing opponents, issuing edicts about everything from chair
heights to hamburger-cooking temperatures -- in the name of the greater
good. Unless a humility epidemic hits Washington soon, the defining battle
of the next century will be the struggle to defend individual dignity.
This is why it is important to get Thanksgiving right. Of course we should
count our blessings. But we should be thankful for things far more basic
than our affluence.
Fittingly, Lincoln opened his final public oration with such a call for
thanksgiving -- knowing, even as death drew near, that right reverence is
the surest way to stamp out the kind of arrogance that turned Young America
into a killing
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©1999, Creators Syndicate