In Washington this fall, amid an impeachment fight and an endless barrage of other outrages, Thanksgiving almost seems out of place. Whatever your politics, there is a lot to be angry about. And it’s not just in Washington, and not just in politics, that such frustration seems to overflow. Our country is uneasy with itself. The public arena is the scene of constant cultural strife. Our major institutions—social and cultural, academic and economic—are frequently theaters in that conflict. Many Americans feel compelled to take part, worrying that if this struggle goes the wrong way, the very preconditions required for our society to sustain itself, for raising our children and building our lives, are in grave danger. Counting your blessings almost feels naïve and irresponsible in such a time.
And yet, that very sense should move us to reflect on the connection between gratitude and outrage. Their relation may reveal something crucial about the architecture of the culture wars we’re fighting—something that could help us see our way toward a healthier appreciation of our lot as Americans, even in a time of strife and disaffection.
Those of us who think the stakes in our cultural conflicts are high, whichever side of those conflicts we are on, frequently find ourselves furious these days. But what are we angry about? Our responses to that question have to do not just with the latest news, but with deeper intuitions about the nature of the human person and its relation to the moral life of our society. We live in a world always filled with both good and bad—success and failure, joy and sorrow, decency and injustice. Looking out at that world, are you first struck by the bad or the good? The answer you incline to give is probably a function of your expectations of human affairs.
To be struck first by the bad is to begin from high expectations of society and politics and to assume that a failure to meet them must be the result of malevolence, or selfishness, or some form of oppression. If “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains,” as Rousseau wrote, so that human affairs would be in good order if not for the willful imposition of injustice by ill-intentioned people, then the world is full of infuriating outrages, and politics must be a constant struggle for liberation from oppression. When that struggle succeeds, we will be justified in giving thanks for it. Until then, gratitude would be misguided.
To be struck first by the good, on the other hand, is to begin from low expectations, and to assume that instances of human beings consistently rising above barbarism must be the result of intense effort and noble commitment over time. If “man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” as the Book of Job suggests, then we shouldn’t be too stunned (even if we should be moved to righteous action) by examples of iniquity and failure. And we ought to be impressed by justice, order, freedom, and prosperity where we find them. We should be grateful for those, and work to protect them and build on them, because they are bound to be precious and vulnerable.
The first way of thinking suggests that justice requires throwing off oppressive burdens. The second suggests that justice requires building up formative institutions. Both can see that the world is broken, and both would work to see it healed. And both can also leave us outraged in bad times. But the first is more outraged by the persistence of an unjust status quo—that it can only attribute to intentional malevolence—while the second is more outraged at threats to hard-won moral gains against our savage nature—threats often posed by projects of radical transformation, which might be well-meaning but are deeply unwise. The first therefore believes that repairing what is broken would be easy, if not for a corrupt and selfish few, while the second expects it to be a perpetual challenge that requires constant commitment, must be taken up anew in every generation, and always has to justify itself against crude but superficially appealing moralisms.
These two broad points of view describe the two broad and often outraged parties to our culture wars; and, among other things, they suggest that these parties stand in two very different relations to gratitude. To be outraged by the depravity of our inheritance is to treat gratitude in a broken world as a moral failing. It is an attitude rooted in the more naïve view of the world, which imagines that justice can result from liberation alone, rather than from formation for a virtuous freedom. A more realistic and more humble outlook is much more inclined to gratitude. It begins from the sense that justice and order don’t come easily, and so it tends to see in our very limited successes in achieving those a hopeful starting point for doing better, rather than a scandalous mark of willful failure.
This has always been the spirit of Thanksgiving in America. In 1789, when, at Congress’s request, President George Washington signed a proclamation marking the last Thursday of November that year as a day to give thanks to God, he suggested a particular set of circumstances for which to express gratitude. These included the nearly miraculous fact of American victory in the Revolutionary War and “the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed,” as well as “the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness,” and “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” Each was a blessing, but also a hard-won achievement that Washington’s words suggested he could easily imagine losing.
For that very reason, this kind of gratitude does not blind us to continuing injustices, but quite the contrary. Upon completing his list of divine favors for which Americans should thank God, Washington hastened to add his hope, “also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” The spirit of gratitude and the spirit of atonement are both rooted in humility, and so they make a natural pair.
Indeed, atonement without gratitude (which is something like what the left wing of our culture wars demands of our society) amounts to a kind of arrogance devoid of any genuine spirit of penitence, or any real possibility of forgiveness. It would insist that injustice is simply the product of misdirected human will, rather than inadequate formation toward the good. As a result, this kind of attitude tends to put itself at war with society’s core formative institutions—which it takes to be the problem and not the solution. And that is what worries the conservatives in the culture wars. It’s why we are outraged in return.
But it is also why it is absolutely essential that we be careful not to let our outrage overcome our gratitude and drive us to adopt a distorted understanding of our own society—a kind of mirror image of the radicals’ view: that the malevolence of those we disagree with means that the society we possess in common has become thoroughly corrupted and has left us with nothing worth securing, and therefore nothing to lose. To be grateful is, in part, to know you have a lot to lose, and therefore also that you have a lot to offer the future, through acts of conservation and refinement, not just through acts of demolition.
We, the conservative party to the conflicts in our culture, have to temper our outrage with our lower expectations, and to remember that ours will always be the more demanding educational challenge. It requires us to draw younger Americans into a spirit of appreciation and humility, not into arrogance and anger. And that means that gratitude must have a central place in how we understand ourselves. We need to show the rising generation what it should be grateful for before we can show it what it should be angry or alarmed about; and we cannot hope to do that in an outraged mode, let alone in hysterical panic. We should care about how our arguments strike our neighbors and what we seem to be inviting people into—either a steadfast project of conservation and construction or a furious circus of victimhood and resentment. The two would draw very different people and would shape them very differently.
But this is not just a tactical point. To get ourselves accustomed to outrage as a standard mode of thought is to acculturate ourselves out of the preconditions for the very project in which we are engaged. It is to see the bad before we see the good; to hate the bad more than we love the good; and therefore to imply (if not to assume) that the bad is what stands out about our situation—that eradicating what makes us angry is all it would take for our society to thrive. To fall into this line of thinking is to make ourselves less capable of mounting a defense of the good and the true; but more importantly, it is to make ourselves less capable of seeing and grasping the good and the true. It is to give up the essential point at issue in our cultural conflicts.
A disposition toward gratitude can, therefore, strengthen both our understanding of what justice actually demands in this imperfect world, and our ability to appeal to those among the young who might be inclined to take up its cause. It might even help us recognize that the people with whom we disagree generally mean well, even when it’s clear to us that the course they recommend would do grave harm. To see that—to strain to understand the heartfelt but misconceived idea of justice at the heart of the progressive cause—could help us to persuade at least those few on the left who may be open to persuasion, and it could help us be a little less outraged even at those who are not. They are our fellow citizens, too, after all.
It is vital, therefore, that we resist the sense that gratitude has no place in this era of frequently justified outrage. In fact, gratitude may be exactly what can help us distinguish justified from unjustified outrage. And in any case, gratitude is the proper disposition toward all the good we have been given, that we have done so little to earn. Such gratitude calls on us to conserve the preconditions for the good in our lives, which are also the preconditions for combating and changing the bad. And that task of conservation, for reasons of both principle and prudence, demands that we approach the larger society by inviting it to partake in a spirit of thanksgiving.
Our society, even in this age of outrage, is plainly hungry for that spirit, and is open to it. And that is one more reason among many to be grateful.