Politics & Policy

On Patriotism and Giving Thanks

Last week while on a college-campus lecture series, I wished a few of the students at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a Happy Thanksgiving. One of the students nearly spat at me in a petty rage and asked how I could celebrate a “white-supremacist holiday.” Didn’t I know that the pilgrims were the beginning of the genocide of Native Americans? My immediate thought was: Couldn’t we deport this woman and take in one of the Syrian refugees in her place? It would be a good trade. The refugee would be much more thankful to be here.

Sorry, young lady, but notwithstanding your juvenile temper tantrum, Thanksgiving is still my favorite of all holidays, and it is right that we should feel a patriotic pride and gratitude for all we have in America. One of the things I always remind college and high-school students of is that they are very lucky, because they won the ultimate lottery of life. There is no better time ever to be alive than now. That’s hard for them to appreciate, because they have been taught since the second grade to worry nonstop about polar bears and ice caps melting and whether a Halloween costume is offensive to a transgender student.

Somehow this clouds the basic reality of modern life: There is more wealth, more equality in terms of the ability for nearly everyone in our society to acquire the basic necessities of life, much better health care, much less pollution, more leisure, more racial and sexual equality, more safety, fewer accidents, and on and on. And now there are iPhones and Uber. So if you could travel back in a time machine, when would you have rather lived?

#related#There is also no nation on the planet you would rather live in. It is striking that those who often tell me how right I am on this point are those who are Americans by choice and were born somewhere else: Cubans, Mexicans, Chinese, Poles, and Russians. They wonder why so many Americans are so readily willing to surrender our freedoms to government. And for what? A Cuban exile recently explained to me: “I’ve had free health care and believe me, you don’t want it here!” Tell Obama.

The angry students who have been protesting on college campuses over petty grievances lack any sense of perspective. This generation of college students seems to think it is uncool — even beneath them — to be patriotic. Why? As many on the right have observed, America is probably the only nation in the world where our schools and our cultural institutions highlight our nation’s shortcomings and are loath to celebrate or even acknowledge our virtues.

#share#When I was ranting about this over the weekend, a friend advised me to calm down and read Ronald Reagan’s farewell address as president. The words cheered me up and filled me with a renewed sense of gratitude. Here were the Gipper’s final words of inspiration as president, delivered two and a half decades ago:

There is a great tradition of warnings in presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past eight years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last, unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

An informed patriotism is what we want. Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio.

Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid Sixties.

But now, we’re about to enter the Nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t re-institutionalized it.

We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, four years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word.

If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.

And let me offer lesson number one about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen, I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

Let’s all start by doing that this Thanksgiving.

— Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a Fox News contributor.

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