< Back to 68k.news US front page

Opinion | Why Thanksgiving helps make American democracy work

Original source (on modern site) | Article images: [1]

Airlines have sold 25 million tickets to fly during Thanksgiving week, with the Federal Aviation Administration forecasting that 48,082 flights will soar through 29 million square miles of airspace over the continental United States on Tuesday alone.

Moving throngs through hundreds of airports, seating them on thousands of complex machines, and transporting them to their various destinations safely and punctually is a colossal logistical challenge for thousands of pilots, air traffic controllers, maintenance workers, flight attendants, reservation agents and — yes — TSA personnel. Many of the aforementioned people sacrifice holiday time with their families to do these jobs.

Air travel was once both highly physically unpleasant — noisy, turbulent, cold — and available to only a wealthy few. Now it is routine, taken for granted by the middle class. Hassles and inconveniences are real, but, relative to a historically informed standard, minor.

And yet the inevitable delays and lost luggage will no doubt be grist for Thanksgiving-table gripes by some who fail to appreciate that, as recently as the early years of the current president's lifetime, jet air travel was still the stuff of futuristic speculation.

Don't be one of them. In fact, when your turn comes to say what you're thankful for, consider your many options from among the amenities, advantages, opportunities and protections with which contemporary America abounds — but which, within living memory, were unavailable, even unimaginable, for the wealthy and powerful.

Follow Charles Lane's opinionsFollow

Ninety-eight years ago last July, the then-president's son got a blister on his toe playing tennis. Within a week, he was dead; the tiny injury to 16-year-old Calvin Coolidge Jr. had become infected with staphylococcus bacteria.

Today, a few cents worth of mass-produced antimicrobial ointment could have prevented this. In 1924, however, the discovery of antibiotics lay in the future, and even the best physicians were helpless to save the boy.

President Coolidge fell into a profound grief, weeping at his White House desk or even remaining in bed up to 16 hours a day. He managed to contest, and win, the 1924 election, but some believe his son's death influenced his fateful decision not to go for another term in 1928 — which paved the way for Herbert Hoover's presidency.

"When he went," Coolidge wrote of Calvin Jr. in 1929, "the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him."

What was the price of an accurate photograph of the surface of Mars in, say, 1960? Infinity dollars — no such thing existed. In 1965, the unmanned NASA vehicle Mariner 4 flew by Mars and took a few grainy shots of its surface from space. In 1976, NASA's Viking probes landed on the Red Planet, and transmitted thousands of high-resolution images of the landscape.

Even then, it took non-trivial time and effort for members of the public to get a look at the images, when they became available in newspapers, magazines or on television.

Nowadays, of course, they are available instantaneously, on demand and, essentially, for free via the internet — along with photographs of nebulas and stars from even deeper in space. Eighty-four percent of American households own smartphones, according to 2018 Census Bureau data, each of which has approximately 100,000 times the processing power of NASA's most sophisticated mid-20th century computers.

It's possible to take this historical-adjustment business too far. The mere fact that regular people today live better than kings in the past is no excuse for complacency about inequality or misery that still exists. To the contrary, awareness that so many blessings are so abundant can and should motivate efforts to make sure they are equitably shared.

Still, it makes sense to evaluate our current situation with respect not only to an ideal future but also to the actual past, remote or recent.

A sense of gratitude is closely related to a sense of perspective. And a sense of perspective is what President Abraham Lincoln meant to encourage when he set the precedent for our modern celebration by proclaiming the final Thursday of November 1863 as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Beset by Civil War, Americans had every reason not to count their blessings that year. Yet Lincoln called on the people to consider "bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come."

For Lincoln and his contemporaries, as for the religious settlers from England who held the first Thanksgiving in 1621, God was self-evidently the "source" of all good things. In our more secular time, people might be less likely to think so. Still, anyone can marvel at the — miraculous? — legacy left us by past generations. Everyone should.

In a stable democracy, citizens temper legitimate grievances about what is going wrong in society with due appreciation for what has gone right. The world's oldest constitutional democracy, the United States, dedicates a day to that purpose every year. Enjoy it.

< Back to 68k.news US front page