Prosperity, Like Life Itself, Has to Be Paid For

WILLIAM PFAFF

November 28, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- One might have expected this year's to be a happy Thanksgiving, rather than the troubled one it proves to be. A year ago the United States was marching toward a war about whose costs no one could be sure.

Today that is past, and the Cold War is over; and if the world remains a violent place, the United States now is mainly engaged as a peacemaker.

The anxiety comes from within. Superficially it concerns the economy. Beyond that, however, is concern that other things in the country have been getting worse, including education, racial and minority relations, even relations between the sexes. There is a terrible meretriciousness in political campaigning and debate, as in public discourse on most subjects.

The tradition of the Thanksgiving holiday has been to express gratitude for divine benevolence during the year past, but this has always implied a declaration of confidence in the future, which does not seem to be the case this year.

The Plymouth Colony settlers experienced a mild first winter in 1620-1621, but scurvy and exposure carried off half the company of 102 which had landed from the Mayflower. Nonetheless, confidence was such that none of the survivors chose to go back when the ship set off for England again. The Wampanoag Indians, themselves struck with plague that winter, had given the tTC settlers no trouble, and fall brought a modestly successful first harvest.

The Thanksgiving then offered by the colonists -- farmers and artisans of little education or position in England -- amounted to a demand for God's favor in the trials ahead. The threat of starvation was not to be removed until several more years had passed. The conflict between colonists and the Indians had yet to begin. Pride and a stubborn conviction of righteousness had brought the little band of Puritan dissenters this far, but they believed that without God's help they could not prevail in their hostile and frightening new country.

It is useful to reflect on their situation on a holiday which in recent years has ordinarily celebrated material comfort, making the complacent assumption that abundance is something America possesses by right. The abundance is not so apparent this year. The streets of American cities are haunted by the homeless poor and sick, and even the employed live with an insecurity unknown in the country since the Great Depression 50 years ago.

The political debate about this usually emphasizes a supposed lack of the means to do anything about it: a lack of ideas, of money, a supposed lack of political leadership. The ideas that are put forward are familiar ones. Republicans say the government should cut taxes again. It is difficult to credit that they can really believe this is the solution for an economy, not to speak of a society, suffering from its lack of public investment, which foreign financiers already consider a tax haven.

Democrats talk protectionism, blaming the Japanese and Europeans for America's trade troubles. Some propose social spending and industrial policy, and some say that they too will cut taxes. None of this is very convincing, since the underlying theme in what both sides say is that no one among the politically active classes of the country, who vote, can be asked to pay more for what serves the public interest.

In none of it is there visible recognition of the possibility that Americans have a collective responsibility for their situation. The absurdity of this rich nation's public poverty and refusal to tax itself for anything but arms is ultimately accountable to the public itself. Walter Mondale was the last politician to talk about taxes to pay for social services and improvement of the material infrastructure of the country, and having done so he vanished from political life. Few politicians have since dared suggest that not only prosperity, but life itself, has to be paid for.

Yet people do understand this, and that is why they are anxious. They may be reluctant to acknowledge their own complicity in the betrayal, but they can recognize that the idea that no one has to pay, while Americans ''have it all,'' is betrayal of their own history and of the virtues by which the country was settled and made,

In 1657, some four decades after the New England settlements began, one of the founders, Richard Mather, wrote his ''Farewel-Exhortation,'' expressing his anxiety that the material accomplishments of the colonists, which seemed all but miraculous since that first winter, might ''in the issue be charged upon the doers as so many sinns . . . [and] no better than acts of profaneness & ungodlyness'' because the moral purpose of the Puritan settlements seemed in danger of being lost.

His is not language familiar to near-21st-century Americans, nor certainly is it the language of American politics. However, one must ask who Americans think they are today if not the products of these people, and these beliefs, and of an American history permeated with moral conviction and purpose. If Americans turn away from that past, what is it that we are choosing today to be, or to become? It is a question worth some thought, between the turkey and the football.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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