Thankfulness is not for sale

November 30, 1999|By Tony Snow

WASHINGTON -- Abraham Lincoln called for a day of national thanksgiving at a time when there wasn't much to cheer about.

War was splitting the country. European nations were looking on with the detachment of cats observing dying mice.

And Lincoln was mourning a dead son and a broken wife.

Still, his proclamation began on a note of hope: "We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

"But," he cautioned, "we have forgotten God. . . . Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."

He thus urged his countrymen "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

Lincoln insight

Lincoln appreciated something we don't: We ought to give thanks not because we are large, rich, powerful, virtuous or happy -- but just because we are.

In the 134 years since our greatest president's death, the world has overcome horrors far worse than the Civil War. Now, having prevailed over Nazism and Communism, we feel a spreading sense of triumph.

As the embers of the Cold War cool to ash, we even harbor Panglossian fantasies of prosperity without end.

Unfortunately, our feelings of conquest rest on a shaky foundation. We may have defeated Marxism, but we have retained its worst remnant -- a public obsession with money.

For most of this century, Babbits and Socialists alike have measured America's greatness (or lack thereof) by tallying its assets.

The standard Thanksgiving declamation begins with a tribute to Pilgrims and ends with some gush about commerce. In this way, an anagogic holiday has slid into demagogy.

I owe this insight not to Lincoln, but to my 2-year-old daughter.

She recently insisted that I pick her up so she could say: "Daddy. Do you know that I can go outside and laugh? And play?"

She loves mundane wonders, such as blades of grass and crickets in the hearth. This contrasts vividly with politicians who praise such things as factories and government offices -- treating people as incidental participants in the March of History.

The recent debate about the federal budget illustrates the tendency to treat cash as our leading social indicator. Democrats and Republicans alike defended their votes by reciting what they intended to spend.

This is idiocy. When rich uncles attempt to purchase affection rather than earning it, they destroy joy and sew cynicism. The same goes for legislators who purr with affection as they pilfer our wages.

Sometimes, the monetary obsession encourages evil. Think about the health-care debate. Politicians want to "humanize" HMOs by forcing them to pinch pennies while performing a broader range of services.

This emphasis on "efficient compassion" puts the coin before the patient -- and gives a subtle boost to such causes as "death with dignity" statutes.

Life's cost

Having reduced life to a cost-benefit transaction, euthanasia advocates throw open the door to murder -- which is what Dutch doctors now perform without aging patients' consent.

When men exalt themselves as the measure of all things, they treat others as chattels.

Today, politicians condone various thuggery -- snooping on citizens, auditing opponents, issuing edicts about everything from chair heights to hamburger-cooking temperatures -- in the name of the greater good.

Unless a humility epidemic hits Washington soon, the defining battle of the next century will be the struggle to defend individual dignity.

This is why it is important to get Thanksgiving right. Of course we should count our blessings, as many of us did on Thursday. But we should be thankful for things far more basic than our affluence.

Fittingly, Lincoln opened his final public oration with such a call for thanksgiving -- knowing that right reverence is the surest way to stamp out the kind of arrogance that turned Young America into a killing field.

Tony Snow writes a syndicated column.

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