A Day for Gratitude

(Photo: Nktwentythree/Dreamstime)
America could produce a Mugabe, but we don’t, thanks to the institutions and traditions formed by those who came before us.

Gratitude is a constant theme at National Review. William F. Buckley Jr. wrote a book on the subject, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. We are constantly mindful of the gratitude we owe the platoons of subscribers, advertisers, donors, cruiser-takers, and other friends and benefactors who keep this enterprise going. Jack Fowler and Rich Lowry have probably worn out untold numbers of keyboards and vast quantities of ballpoint pens communicating that gratitude.

Gratitude should come naturally to conservatives, because conservatism is rooted in gratitude — to those who came before and prepared the way, to those who worked and built and saved and thought and wrote and reasoned and invested and fought and sometimes died to give us the great patrimony we enjoy, the great gift of not having been obliged to begin from scratch. On Thanksgiving, we think about the Pilgrims. Consider that they landed in Massachusetts in November, a very cold one. Consider the boats they came in — not the Queen Mary 2.

I live in Texas, so I don’t worry too very much about winter. But that first winter for the Pilgrims was something else. And there were many hard winters after that: at Valley Forge, with the Army of the Potomac in 1863, in the trenches of the Great War, on the road during the Great Depression, sheltering at the Chosin Reservoir, where the ground was frozen so hard the troops couldn’t bury the dead. In Afghanistan, the fighting traditionally has subsided in the winter until the return of “fighting season” in the spring — but not this year.

It’ll be 72 degrees where I live today. And there’s Starbucks. Life has its little troubles, to be sure, but the worst thing I had to deal with today was the Transportation Security Administration. (Whose minions are, in fact, the worst thing I have to deal with on many days.) I have some unexpected expenses, an ongoing legal dispute, the usual assortment of domestic tensions. Every now and then, something I regret comes to me, fresh as when it was new, right when I’m on the edge of falling asleep. We all have our little crosses to bear, but mine have been light.

Domestic political tensions are running high, and not without reason. Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Roy Moore, the cast of MSNBC (MSNB-Hee-Haw, Larry Elder calls them), Sean Hannity: Does anybody really think they represent the best in us? Of course not. But we conservatives ought to try to keep things in perspective. Robert Mugabe has just now — finally — been driven from office. He came to power when I was in the second grade, and I am now a middle-aged man. The people of Zimbabwe, generations of them, have known nothing but terror and corruption from their government. Western Europeans think of their governments as being there to look after them, in loco parentis. We Americans take a slightly different view. But the people of Zimbabwe, of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, North Korea, the so-called People’s Republic of China — they have had very little reason to expect anything other than predation, thievery, oppression, incompetence, and worse.

“Burn it all down!” is, at the moment, the motto of some people who think of themselves as conservatives. “It couldn’t get any worse!” These are the least conservative sentiments there are — and the most ungrateful. There isn’t anything magical about our genes or our Constitution that protects us from barbarism. The nation that produced Cervantes was under a generalissimo’s dictatorship within my lifetime; the nation that produced Beethoven also produced Hitler; the civilization that produced Leonardo also produced fascism. Culture will not save you — us. We have what we have not because of the glorious tradition that includes Shakespeare and the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and Abraham Lincoln, but because responsible men made the right decisions when it mattered. Dwight Eisenhower’s aids suggested he use nuclear weapons against China. His answer was one for the ages: “You boys must be crazy.” Sometimes, the problem is elsewhere in the chain of command. Washington legend has it that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger quietly ensured that President Nixon, who did not seem to be thinking clearly at the end of his days in office, was prevented from giving the military any erratic orders. Then as now, our institutions have an excellent track record for managing the fallible men temporarily invested with political power.

That did not happen by accident.

Then as now, our institutions have an excellent track record for managing the fallible men temporarily invested with political power. That did not happen by accident.

Our friends on the left, and sometimes on the right, sometimes treat that patrimony with contempt. They argue that the courts, especially the Supreme Court, should simply find some pretext to give them whatever it is they want at the moment rather than hewing closely to the law and the Constitution, recklessly unmindful of what chaos and destruction can be inflicted by men with power unloosed from the law. They treat the regulatory agencies the same way: There may not be any statutory authority for the FCC or the EPA to do this, that, or the other, but they convince themselves that their short-term agenda is more important than the long-term stability of the country and its institutions — and more important than the rule of law. That isn’t the George Washington model; that’s the Robert Mugabe model. And you shouldn’t sedate yourself with moral certainties on these questions: Mugabe undoubtedly thought he was doing good things for his people. Hitler, too.

I find myself returning often to A Man for All Seasons. In the play, Thomas More scolds a hot-headed young partisan who argues that legal niceties should be set aside because of the emergency upon the kingdom (there is always an emergency, for partisans):

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man‘s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down, d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

I wonder.

We Americans are not incapable of producing a Hugo Chávez or a Robert Mugabe, a Lenin or a Hitler. But we have traditions, institutions, and procedures that keep our own worst tendencies in check. For that, we should be truly grateful.

And gratitude without works is dead. We should indeed reflect on what we owe to our country, which surely is more than the regnant pettiness of anno Domini 2017.


In Defense of American Exceptionalism

American Exceptionalism and Its Discontents

How I Fell in Love With the United States

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.