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Taking for Granted: Thoughts on America as Thanksgiving Approaches

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As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m thinking about the importance of not taking things for granted. Not only because the feeling of gratitude is a gift that enriches one’s life. But also because it’s important for people who want to save the world –people, I must confess, like me-- to be able to distinguish between the bathwater and the baby.

It is in that context that I’ve come to recognize a serious misjudgment I made years ago when I was part of the counterculture. I still think there was a lot that was valid in our critique of America’s mainstream culture. But it was a major mistake –even if one forgivable in youth-- to take so much for granted about the society we were born into.

While that society was certainly badly flawed, it was also an achievement. It had taken centuries –millennia—for people to create the structures that gave us as much of freedom, of abundance, of simple decency as was present in the America in which we’d grown up.

But back in the sixties, I –and many of my idealistic compadres-- took much of that for granted. When I thought of the possibilities for change in America, my eye was always on change for the better. It scarcely occurred to me that change in America might be for the worse, that we might someday look back at the America of that time with a sense that precious things had been lost.

After all, had not our Establishment, in its arrogance, given us the nightmare of Vietnam?

Yes, in Vietnam, American hubris took the policy of containment deep into folly, and worse than folly. But since then —in that film The Fog of War— that Pentagon whiz kid, Bob McNamara, has had the decency to shed tears of remorse over his errors. Can you imagine our present Secretary of Defense ever weeping over all the lives destroyed by his arrogance?

From McNamara to Rumsfeld—the arrogance persists, but the capacity for shame and repentance has disappeared.

There was a basic decency in the American establishment of that post-World-War II era that is simply not visible in the power-wielders of today.

People like me chafed to see LBJ in the White House—LBJ with his sleazy ways, his mistreatment of poor Lady Bird, his arm-twisting and backroom-dealing.

All true; he was gigantic in his flaws. But it was also because of LBJ –bringing the full force of his political talents to bear—that vital civil rights legislation got enacted, finally accomplishing what the Civil War was supposed to have done a century before. And he signed it –signed it gladly– despite knowing, as he then said, that it would cost his party the South for a generation.

Can you even imagine the current occupant of the White House signing a law –knowing it would impose a huge political cost on his forces—just because it was the right thing to do, because the soul of America required it?

It’s not just in the rarefied circles of power-wielders that this downhill slide has occurred.
I suspect that in the more morally grounded America of two generations ago, fewer Americans would so readily have believed our current rulers’ lie of false righteousness. On more intimate terms of actual goodness in their own lives –or so I imagine—the people of this country would not so readily have fallen for the spiritual con job of men whose allegiance to evil is displayed in virtually their every word and gesture.

Nor have the downward possibilities of change been confined to the political realm. Some of the cultural changes we helped to unleashed proved not to be so unmixed a blessing.

Many of us who grew up in the stultifying bondage of “Pleasantville” just assumed that liberation would lead to the promised land of human blossoming.

But it turns out that “let it all hang out” leads not just to healthy honesty but also to The Jerry Springer Show, and to movies that revel in sadistic violence. And it turned out, too, that the ethic behind another post-Pleasantville rallying cry –“if it feels good, do it”—can help produce millions of kids growing up without a stable family to anchor their lives.

There was a lot of derisive talk, back then, of “uptight” conventional values. But frustration, it turns out, may not be the most important fruit of those “bourgeois” values so many in the counterculture thought should be overthrown.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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