Speaking as a misfit unassimilated foreigner, I think of Thanksgiving as the most American of holidays. Christmas is celebrated elsewhere, even if there are significant local variations: in continental Europe, naughty children get left rods to be flayed with and lumps of coal; in Britain, Christmas lasts from December 22nd to mid-January and celebrates the ancient cultural traditions of massive alcohol intake and watching the telly till you pass out in a pool of your own vomit. All part of the rich diversity of our world. But Thanksgiving (excepting the premature and somewhat undernourished Canadian version) is unique to America. “What’s it about?” an Irish visitor asked me a couple of years back. “Everyone sits around giving thanks all day? Thanks for what? George bloody Bush?”
Well, Americans have a lot to be thankful for. Europeans think of this country as “the New World” in part because it has an eternal newness which is noisy and distracting. Who would ever have thought you could have ready-to-eat pizza faxed directly to your iPod? And just when you think you’re on top of the general trend of novelty, it veers off in an entirely different direction: Continentals who grew up on Hollywood movies where the guy tells the waitress “Gimme a cuppa joe” and slides over a nickel return to New York a year or two later and find the coffee now costs $5.75, takes 25 minutes and requires an agonizing choice between the cinnamon-gingerbread-persimmon latte with coxcomb sprinkles and the decaf venti pepperoni-Eurasian-milfoil macchiato. Who would have foreseen that the nation that inflicted fast food and drive-thru restaurants on the planet would then take the fastest menu item of all and turn it into a kabuki-paced performance art? What mad genius!
But Americans aren’t novelty junkies on the important things. “The New World” is one of the oldest settled constitutional democracies on earth, to a degree “the Old World” can barely comprehend. Where it counts, Americans are traditionalists. We know Eastern Europe was a totalitarian prison until the Nineties, but we forget that Mediterranean Europe (Greece, Spain, Portugal) has democratic roots going all the way back until, oh, the mid-Seventies; France and Germany’s constitutions date back barely half a century, Italy’s only to the 1940s, and Belgium’s goes back about 20 minutes, and currently it’s not clear whether even that latest rewrite remains operative. The U.S. Constitution is not only older than France’s, Germany’s, Italy’s or Spain’s constitution, it’s older than all of them put together. Americans think of Europe as Goethe and Mozart and 12th century castles and 6th century churches, but the Continent’s governing mechanisms are no more ancient than the Partridge Family. Aside from the Anglophone democracies, most of “the west’”s nation states have been conspicuous failures at sustaining peaceful political evolution from one generation to the next, which is why they’re so susceptible to the siren song of Big Ideas — Communism, Fascism, European Union. If you’re going to be novelty-crazed, better the zebra-mussel cappuccino than the Third Reich.
Even in a supposedly 50/50 nation, you’re struck by the assumed stability underpinning even fundamental disputes. If you go into a bookstore, the display shelves offer a smorgasbord of leftist anti-Bush tracts claiming that he and Cheney have trashed, mangled, gutted, raped and tortured, sliced’n’diced the Constitution, put it in a cement overcoat and lowered it into the East River. Yet even this argument presupposes a shared veneration for tradition unknown to most Western political cultures: When Tony Blair wanted to abolish in effect the upper house of the national legislature, he just got on and did it. I don’t believe the U.S. Constitution includes a right to abortion or gay marriage or a zillion other things the Left claims to detect emanating from the penumbra, but I find it sweetly touching that in America even political radicalism has to be framed as an appeal to constitutional tradition from the powdered-wig era. In Europe, by contrast, one reason why there’s no politically significant pro-life movement is because, in a world where constitutions have the life expectancy of an Oldsmobile, great questions are just seen as part of the general tide, the way things are going, no sense trying to fight it. And, by the time you realize you have to, the tide’s usually up to your neck.
So Americans should be thankful they have one of the last functioning nation states. Because they’ve been so inept at exercising it, Europeans no longer believe in national sovereignty, whereas it would never occur to Americans not to. This profoundly different attitude to the nation state underpins in turn Euro-American attitudes to transnational institutions such as the U.N. But on this Thanksgiving the rest of the world ought to give thanks to American national sovereignty, too. When something terrible and destructive happens — a tsunami hits Indonesia, an earthquake devastates Pakistan — the U.S. can project itself anywhere on the planet within hours and start saving lives, setting up hospitals and restoring the water supply. Aside from Britain and France, the Europeans cannot project power in any meaningful way anywhere. When they sign on to an enterprise they claim to believe in — shoring up Afghanistan’s fledgling post-Taliban democracy — most of them send token forces under constrained rules of engagement that prevent them doing anything more than manning the photocopier back at the base. If America were to follow the Europeans and maintain only shriveled attenuated residual military capacity, the world would very quickly be nastier and bloodier, and far more unstable. It’s not just Americans and Iraqis and Afghans who owe a debt of thanks to the U.S. soldier but all the Europeans grown plump and prosperous in a globalized economy guaranteed by the most benign hegemon in history.
That said, Thanksgiving isn’t about the big geopolitical picture, but about the blessings closer to home. Last week, the state of Oklahoma celebrated its centennial, accompanied by rousing performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s eponymous anthem:
We know we belong to the land
And the land we belong to is grand!
Which isn’t a bad theme song for the first Thanksgiving, either. Three hundred and eighty-six years ago, the pilgrims thanked God because there was a place for them in this land, and it was indeed grand. The land is grander today, and that too is remarkable: France has lurched from Second Empires to Fifth Republics struggling to devise a lasting constitutional settlement for the same smallish chunk of real estate, but the principles that united a baker’s dozen of East Coast colonies were resilient enough to expand across a continent and halfway around the globe to Hawaii. Americans should, as always, be thankful this Thanksgiving, but they should also understand just how rare in human history their blessings are.
© Mark Steyn 2007