Thanksgiving Thoughts

It's not just freedom that Americans should be thankful for.

There is one thing that Americans in particular have to be thankful for, not just this Thanksgiving but every Thanksgiving.  It is not just our heritage of freedom, but something more: the fact that many of us – if not, alas, all of us – have a proper appreciation for that precious inheritance.

Americans are used to being told that every human heart longs for freedom.  “Freedom is the deepest need of every human soul,” said George W. Bush.  This may be so; it is nice to think that it is.  But in some souls that need for freedom would appear to be so deeply buried a need that the individuals in question have no awareness of it whatsoever.  In living memory, after all, there have walked on this earth millions of convinced enemies of freedom – devout Nazis, devout Communists, and devout believers in the all-encompassing law of submission, the very opposite of freedom, which is sharia law.

Americans have always been prepared to think the best of others.  And one aspect of this is that when we see Arabs revolting against dictators, many of us are quick to embrace the belief that they are acting in the name of individual liberty.  What we don’t realize is that it is not just American freedom, but the American love of freedom, that is a rare and precious thing.  For the fact is that while there are indeed souls that yearn for freedom in every tyrannical society, there are also souls everywhere that yearn to be tyrannized.

In his profound and beautiful new book, A Point in Time, David Howoritz reminds us of a line from The Brothers Karamazov: “So long as man remains free, he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”  The great American blessing is that we have, as a people, tended, to a remarkable degree, to be an exception to this otherwise ironclad rule of humankind.  There is nothing genetic about this (Americans do not share a common ethnicity) and there is nothing about this for which we have any right to congratulate ourselves.  To the extent that we are an exception to this rule, it is because we are – or, at least, used to be – brought up on values rooted in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Those documents were written by a group of rare and brilliant men.  And one of the rare things about them was that they did not long for someone to worship, for a ruler to look up to, for a state to make decisions for them.  They were men of learning and science, curious about the world and the human condition and unafraid of their own curiosity.  For them, the world, however fearful it might be, was also a place in which one could seek knowledge and pursue happiness, all the while following one’s own lead.  They saw men as creatures who were, by nature, free, and who owed it to themselves to overcome their fear of that freedom, to embrace it with courage and dignity, and to cherish the right to lead their lives with a minimum of interference.  Well brought-up Americans are – or at least in living memory were – raised on those men’s philosophy.  It was a devotion to those ideas that made generations of young Americans not only willing but eager to fight in foreign wars for the freedom of foreign peoples.

American ideas of freedom have been spread throughout the world.  But in very few places, if anywhere, have they become as deeply rooted as they are in our own soil.  The recent history of Western Europe has shown just how readily a free people can agree to restrict their freedoms in order to placate a freedom-hating minority.  (“Freedom,” Ronald Reagan reminded us, “is never more than one generation away from extinction.”)  Americans cheered when Communism fell in Europe.  Yet millions of Russians still cherish the memory of Stalin; in a new book about his travels in Germany, I Sleep in Hitler’s Room, the American Jewish writer Tuvia Tenenbom records, depressingly, that one person after another whom he met in the former East Germany longs for the days of Communism.  (They even miss the Stasi.)

For many Americans, such facts are hard to swallow and nearly impossible to make sense of.  Alas, for most people in most places in most eras of history, it has been nothing more or less than human nature to want to be told what to think and not think, what to do and not do, where to go and not go.  The world is scary and chaotic, and order imposed from without can be comforting.  The ordinary human individual is well aware that he has very little control over anything in his world and none of the answers to any of the important questions – but despite this, or rather because of it, he is eager to embrace the illusion that someone else does, and to follow and obey that person with a passion of religious dimensions.  (This, of course, is what was so unsettling about the irrational enthusiasm of many voters for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: to idealize any politician in such a way is thoroughly alien to the best of American traditions.)

The sad truth is that all too many people want to be cogs in wheels; they want to be parts of a collective; they want the security of being able to think of themselves as wards of a state.  In their eyes, to be a free individual is, above all, to be naked and vulnerable.  If twenty-first-century men and women in Western countries, heirs to the Enlightenment, can so readily spit on their freedom, imagine how much more difficult a sell individual liberty is for people nurtured on an obsessively collective, systematically oppressive culture founded in – and fixated on – a single book packed with bullying commands to hate, and to kill or convert, everyone outside the collective.  The wonder of the “Arab spring” is not that people in one country after another are happily exchanging one kind of autocracy for another, but that there are any voices for freedom at all.

So, yes, we Americans have much to be thankful for.  But much, too, of course, to be vigilant about – for even in America, as we all know, not only freedom but the love of freedom is today under siege, and those of us who recognize what is at stake have a solemn duty to keep that light from going out.

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