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.
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