Repost: A personal (and not gentle) observation for Thanksgiving: Stop whining.

Although various states in the early American Union put aside a day of gratitude, it wasn’t until the middle of the U.S. Civil War that Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of Thanksgiving.

Does anyone even bother to read that proclamation any more? Before we take another step, let’s recall some of its passages and try to remember that Lincoln was calling upon Americans to give thanks to God Himself in the midst of a wrenching war.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

…the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy….

“…while dealing with us in anger for our sins…” Antietam, 1862 (23,000 casualties in one day)

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens…[and] fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In our divided, utterly secularized and balkanized culture, Thanksgiving has now become a kind of generic observation of, on one side, an I-support-the-troops denatured patriotism, and on the other, a multicultural hodgepodge of gripes (celebrate Pocahontas, not Columbus, etc).

“All men are endowed by their Creator…” Whoa, whoa, knock off the God-talk, you right-wing nut-case.

Reading Lincoln’s proclamation on Thanksgiving is a reminder of what gratitude really looks and sounds like. It also should draw our attention to how hostile we’ve become to any expression of religious belief — or really, to anyone who shows attachment to a transcendental belief in anything. These days, no American president would risk the sneering condescension of the chattering classes by speaking to the American people this way. (“Implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand?” Heads would be exploding all over the offices of the The New York Times if a national leader said that.)

It’s worse than that, however, because a sizable portion of the American people themselves would be offended. No President of the United States, or any other public figure, would dare address the American people in these terms, because it would provoke a collective temper-tantrum. Daddy isn’t supposed to tell us to be grateful, after all, he’s supposed to give us the car keys and shut up.

And it’s got to stop.

And so, I want to implore my fellow citizens to observe Thanksgiving and the coming holiday season and stop acting like spoiled brats. 

Seriously, just stop. No matter what your age or your politics, you’re giving “brattiness” a bad name. Never have Americans enjoyed longer life spans, greater health, greater wealth, a higher standard of living, or such almost invulnerable national security, certainly not since World War II, and perhaps never.

Oh, no…don’t you roll your eyes at me, especially if you’re under 40. If you haven’t lived through the mess that existed before the boom times of the 1980s, you don’t get to whine about how bad the economy is or how scary things have gotten out in the big bad world, or any of that.

…and cancel out the student loans I thought I’d repay while being a computer game designer

I am constantly stunned, for example, at students who tell me how “this is just the worst economy ever” while texting to their girlfriend on their $600 iPhone about how bad the economy is while in a chat room (talking about the bad economy, of course) they’ve accessed through their expensive laptop on free Wi-Fi drinking a six-dollar coffee at Starbucks. Irony is dead.

I actually saw a guy panhandling in Harvard Square, holding a sign up for help, while talking on an iPhone. Apparently, I’m supposed to donate to his data plan. When my church asked the local social services office to send us a list of needs for kids for Christmas, we got requests for GameStop cards for new stuff for their home gaming systems. (I only partly blame the kids for asking. I blame the social workers for actually delivering those requests.) That’s how ridiculous and spoiled we’ve gotten.

No, wait, it’s even more ridiculous. A 2009 Pew survey found that a majority of Americans believed that the decade from 2000-2010 was the worst in 50 years. That is pure, unvarnished madness. And just when you think it all can’t get any dumber, it does: Ron Brownstein at National Journal wrote in 2011 that maybe it’s one of the worst American decades ever. Sure, Ron admits that the whole Civil War thing was ugly, and the Depression was icky, but…the 2000s? Here’s Brownstein:

With Bush’s tax cuts failing to produce broadly shared prosperity even before the financial meltdown and Barack Obama’s stimulus failing to ignite robust recovery, the median income is now lower than in 2001 and the number of Americans in poverty nearly one-third higher. Most incredibly, fewer Americans are working today than in September 2001—a decade-long record of decline matched since 1900 only during the 1930s. Faith in all public and private leadership is flickering.That doesn’t cast our time into the depths of misery Americans knew in the Civil War or the Depression. But it probably makes these past 10 years our lowest point since then, at least so far.

Of course, unspoken in all this is how we’ve been enduring an economic mess largely of our own making. We’re a culture that wants what we want, on demand, with no backtalk about icky words like “responsibility” or “duty.” And thus we insisted on interest-only mortgages and gambled on ARMs for houses we couldn’t afford, and then whined like colicky babies when we couldn’t pay the freight. When the bill came due, we blamed banks by accusing them of letting us have money they should have been smart enough not to lend us in the first place.

The “worst economy ever” chant never stops, no matter how high the standard of living. The problem is, that mantra doesn’t stand up either to facts or experience. The late 1970s were a much worse situation than today, in just about every respect.

When I started college in 1979, unemployment was over 10%. (Snow. Uphill. Both ways.) It’s much lower today — and yet we’re talking about it like it’s the Depression. Interest rates back then were sky-high — routinely in double-digits even just to buy a car — while today they are negligible. As is inflation.

I bought a house in 1991 and got a rate of 8 percent, and thought I was lucky. Today, that would be considered usury. The top marginal tax rate was some 70% back then; today it’s 35% and we bicker over a few percent more. We were far more at the mercy of foreign oil, and our economy was in the condition called “stagflation” — low growth but high inflation — that is so rare we don’t even use that word anymore.

Kiss me, Jimmy.

All of this pales next to an even greater reality: we do not live with the constant possibility of instant national extinction. Today we worry about the slow death of the earth from a rise of a few degrees in temperature over the next 50 years; back then, however, we worried about the instantaneous death of the planet from a rise of ten million degrees in 26 minutes or so.

But no, we have, for now, tamed the nuclear arms race. In 1967, the United States had over 30,000 nuclear weapons. Today, we are implementing a treaty that will limit us to 1550. We can still eradicate life on earth, but we’re a lot less likely to do it.

We are no longer in a death-struggle with a huge, psychotic Communist empire over their relentless desire to run the world as a prison camp. Our ideas were better than theirs, and they imploded as much from our military pressure as from their own stupidity, all of it without one college kid drafted since Richard Nixon was president.

(Nixon was, in his way, a genius: he knew that college protests were really about the threat of being drafted, not about the morality of the Vietnam War. He ended the draft and the protests ended. The war, and the killing, went on for another few years, but it no longer inconvenienced anyone.)

This decade has sucked in some major ways, especially in the collapse of anything we could once have called “culture.” (Imagine a band on a network television show 20 or 30 years ago playing a song called “Lying Ass Bitch” at all, much less as the intro for a presidential candidate.)

(UPDATE: I shouldn’t have ragged on Questlove’s precocious stunt. Watching Kanye West’s recent video, in which he nuzzles his wife’s freakish boobs on a motorcycle while cooing “I wanna f*** you hard on a sink” reminded me that we haven’t nearly hit the bottom of our cultural dumpster yet.)

We are, in the cities and small towns alike, beset by a neo-pagan culture of overweight, tattooed, XBox-addicted man-children. But that’s only because we’ve had the luxury, time, and affluence to become such a culture. (Poor societies can’t produce too many people like that, because they’re too busy trying not to starve to death.) The rest of us, to our shame, have the means to put up with it, and have disengaged from the public square.

Why has this happened? Because we’ve let it. We, us, you, me. It’s our own fault. If your kid is 25 (still a “child” under the Affordable Care Act, of course)  and still living at home with you, covered in tattoos that say “Who’s Your Daddy” in Chinese, and spending his days eating fast food while sharpening his social skills on World of Warcraft, blame yourself, not the United States.

We can’t fix any of that right now. But for one day, let’s genuinely be grateful that these are about as bad as our daily problems get. No one is an inch away from vaporizing our nation. For all our economic troubles, we’re still bigger than the next three economies combined. We have a standard of living, as political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in 2002, in which “the poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.” (If you want to read an eye-bulging hissy fit taking issue with this observation — and with how the Heritage Foundation ratted out American bad habits by reading the Statistical Abstract of the United States — you can read this. Let it not be said I don’t present alternate views.)

Personally, I’m deeply grateful, as was Abraham Lincoln, to a “beneficient Father,” and to the hard work and ingenuity of generations of American immigrants and their descendants. I’ll turn 51 53 54 soon. I have never seen this much prosperity in America in my lifetime. I’ve never seen this much wealth, this much liberty, this much peace, enjoyed by so many people.

And I’ve never seen such unbelievable whining about it all.

Enough. Please.

Just offer a prayer of Thanks, and mean it.


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  1. 52 going on 53 yeesh, you’re … well, old 😉 (I turned 23 on the 24th.)

    This country has given me much to be grateful for, and I’m always mindful of that. It’s not a sentiment triggered by a particular time of year.

  2. Your commentary overlooks crucially salient facts:

    Unemployment was redefined in 1994 to exclude long-term discouraged workers.

    In other words, if you’re unemployed for more than a year or 18 months and can’t find a job, you may still be unemployed, but you aren’t counted as unemployed

    If memory serves me right, us unemployment as measured by 1979 criteria is about 18%, or almost double the 1979 rate.

    On mortgages what matters is not the interest rate including inflation but the one afte excluding inflation (if your pay goes up too, a high rate hurts far less.)

    • Yes, it’s never been worse. We used to point that out in 1979 on our computers and laptops while posting about it to blogs.

      Oh, wait.

  3. Professor Nichols
    What a fascinating take on the real meaning of Thanksgiving, and some true hard facts about the current state of our nation.
    Russ Colvin

  4. Ironically, I think the 2000s might actually the worst decade in American history precisely because our citizenry has become so ignorant and pathetic.

  5. An interesting read and agree with much of the sentiment, but why conflate technical/medical/scientific progress with people’s economic position?

    Kids today (in the UK, where we don’t give thanks for anything, let alone put aside a whole day for it) whinge that they can’t get jobs, that university education coats a fortune because a generation who got it for free felt it only fair that they should pay for it, that even if they can get a job they can’t afford houses that their parents did at that age etc etc. none of this can be dismissed just because they have iPhones and blogs surely? It’s like saying kids complaining about getting drafted to Vietnam shouldn’t grumble because they replaced black and white tv with colour tv!

    The truth is, you only lose your virginity once. Of course young people today are going to whine that they are having a hard time without thinking about what deal their parents got at the same age, just like draft dodging whiners in the 60s weren’t thinking about what it might have been like during the Great Depression. When you come of age defines you, no matter how intelligent or how great a sense of perspective you think you have.

  6. Spot on Tom, and despite views to the contrary (from the usual suspects) it applies just as much, if not more, on this side of the pond.

  7. “Why has this happened? Because we’ve let it. We, us, you, me. It’s our own fault. If your kid is 25 (still a “child” under the Affordable Care Act, of course) and still living at home with you, covered in tattoos that say “Who’s Your Daddy” in Chinese, and spending his days eating fast food while sharpening his social skills on World of Warcraft, blame yourself, not the United States.”

    HA!, Brillant