Why the world can be thank­ful for the USA

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - MARK STEYN

Speak­ing as a mis­fit unas­sim­i­lated for­eigner, I think of Thanks­giv­ing as the most Amer­i­can of hol­i­days. Christ­mas is cel­e­brated else­where, even if there are sig­nif­i­cant lo­cal vari­a­tions.

In Con­ti­nen­tal Europe, naughty chil­dren get left rods to be flayed with and lumps of coal; in Bri­tain, Christ­mas lasts from Dec. 22 to mid-Jan­uary and cel­e­brates the an­cient cul­tural tra­di­tions of mas­sive al­co­hol in­take and watch­ing TV till you pass out in a pool of your own vomit. All part of our world’s rich di­ver­sity.

But Thanks­giv­ing (ex­cept­ing the pre­ma­ture and some­what un­der­nour­ished Cana­dian ver­sion) is unique to Amer­ica. “What’s it about?” an Ir­ish vis­i­tor asked me a cou­ple of years back. “Ev­ery­one sits around giv­ing thanks all day? Thanks for what? Ge­orge bloody Bush?”

Well, Amer­i­cans have a lot to be thank­ful for. Euro­peans think of this coun­try as “the New World” in part be­cause it has an eter­nal new­ness which is noisy and dis­tract­ing. Who would ever have thought you could have ready-to-eat pizza faxed di­rectly to your iPod? And just when you think you’re on top of the gen­eral trend of nov­elty, it veers off in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion: Con­ti­nen­tals who grew up on Hol­ly­wood movies where the guy tells the wait­ress “Gimme a cuppa joe” and slides over a nickel re­turn to New York a year or two later and find the cof­fee now costs $5.75, takes 25 min­utes and re­quires an ag­o­niz­ing choice be­tween the cin­na­mon-ginger­bread-per­sim­mon latte with cox- comb sprin­kles and the de­caf venti pep­per­oni-Eurasian-mil­foil mac­chi­ato. Who would have fore­seen that the na­tion that in­flicted fast food and drive-through restau­rants on the planet would then take the fastest menu item of all and turn it into a kabukipaced per­for­mance art? What mad ge­nius.

But Amer­i­cans aren’t nov­elty junkies on the im­por­tant things. “The New World” is one of the old­est set­tled con­sti­tu­tional democ­ra­cies on Earth, to a de­gree “the Old World” can barely com­pre­hend. Where it counts, Amer­i­cans are tra­di­tion­al­ists. We know East­ern Europe was a to­tal­i­tar­ian prison un­til the 1990s, but we for­get that Mediter­ranean Europe (Greece, Spain, Por­tu­gal) has demo­cratic roots go­ing all the way back un­til, oh, the mid-1970s; France and Ger­many’s con­sti­tu­tions date back barely a half-cen­tury, Italy’s only to the 1940s, and Bel­gium’s goes back about 20 min­utes, and cur­rently it’s not clear whether even that latest re­write is oper­a­tive.

The United States Con­sti­tu­tion is not only older than France’s, Ger­many’s, Italy’s or Spain’s con­sti­tu­tion, it’s older than all of them put to­gether. Amer­i­cans think of Europe as Goethe and Mozart and 12th cen­tury cas­tles and sixth cen­tury churches. But the Con­ti­nent’s gov­ern­ing mech­a­nisms are no more an­cient than the Par­tridge fam­ily. Aside from the An­glo­phone democ­ra­cies, most of “the West”‘s na­tion­states have been con­spic­u­ous fail­ures at sus­tain­ing peace­ful po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion from one gen- er­a­tion to the next, which is why they’re so sus­cep­ti­ble to the siren song of Big Ideas — com­mu­nism, fas­cism, Euro­pean Union. If you’re go­ing to be nov­el­ty­crazed, bet­ter the ze­bra-mus­sel cap­puc­cino than the Third Re­ich.

Even in a sup­pos­edly 50/50 na­tion, you’re struck by the as­sumed sta­bil­ity un­der­pin­ning even fun­da­men­tal dis­putes. If you go into a book­store, the dis­play shelves of­fer a smor­gas­bord of left­ist anti-Bush tracts claim­ing he and Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney have trashed, man­gled, gut­ted, raped and tor­tured, sliced ‘n’ diced the Con­sti­tu­tion, put it in a ce­ment over­coat and low­ered it into the East River.

Yet even this ar­gu­ment pre­sup­poses a shared ven­er­a­tion for tra­di­tion un­known to most West­ern po­lit­i­cal cul­tures: When Tony Blair wanted to abol­ish in ef­fect the up­per house of the na­tional leg­is­la­ture, he just got on and did it. I don’t be­lieve the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion in­cludes a right to abor­tion or same-sex “mar­riage” or a zil­lion other things the left claims to de­tect em­a­nat­ing from the penum­bra, but I find it sweetly touch­ing that in Amer­ica even po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism has to be framed as an ap­peal to con­sti­tu­tional tra­di­tion from the pow­dered-wig era.

In Europe, by con­trast, one rea­son there’s no po­lit­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant pro-life move­ment is that, in a world where con­sti­tu­tions have the life ex­pectancy of an Oldsmo­bile, great ques­tions are just seen as part of the gen­eral tide, the way things are go­ing, no sense try­ing to fight it. And, by the time you re­al­ize you must, the tide is usu­ally up to your neck.

So Amer­i­cans should be thank­ful they have one of the last func­tion­ing na­tion-states. Be­cause they’ve been so in­ept at ex­er­cis­ing it, Euro­peans no longer be­lieve in na­tional sovereignty, whereas it would never oc­cur to Amer­i­cans not to. This pro­foundly dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to the na­tion-state un­der­pins in turn Euro-Amer­i­can at­ti­tudes to transna­tional in­sti­tu­tions such as the United Na­tions.

But on this Thanks­giv­ing the rest of the world should give thanks to Amer­i­can na­tional sovereignty, too. When some­thing ter­ri­ble and de­struc­tive hap­pens — a tsunami hits In­done­sia, an earth­quake dev­as­tates Pak­istan — the U.S. can project it­self any­where on the planet within hours and start sav­ing lives, set­ting up hos­pi­tals and restor­ing the wa­ter sup­ply.

Aside from Bri­tain and France, the Euro­peans can­not project power in any mean­ing­ful way any­where. When they sign on to an en­ter­prise they claim to be­lieve in — shoring up Afghanistan’s fledg­ling post-Tal­iban democ­racy — most of them send to­ken forces un­der con­strained rules of en­gage­ment that pre­vent them do­ing any­thing more than man­ning the pho­to­copier back at the base.

Were Amer­ica to fol­low the Euro­peans and main­tain only shriv­eled at­ten­u­ated resid­ual mil­i­tary ca­pac­ity, the world would very quickly be nas­tier and blood­ier, and far more un­sta­ble. It’s not just Amer­i­cans and Iraqis and Afghans who owe a debt of thanks to the U.S. sol­dier but all the Euro­peans grown plump and pros­per­ous in a glob­al­ized econ­omy guar­an­teed by the most be­nign hege­mon in his­tory.

That said, Thanks­giv­ing isn’t about the big geopo­lit­i­cal pic­ture, but about the bless­ings closer to home. Last week, the state of Oklahoma cel­e­brated its cen­ten­nial, ac­com­pa­nied by rous­ing per­for­mances of Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s epony­mous an­them: We know we be­long to the land And the land we be­long to is grand

That isn’t a bad theme song for the first Thanks­giv­ing, ei­ther. More than 380 years ago, the pil­grims thanked God be­cause there was a place for them in this land, and it was in­deed grand. The land is grander to­day, and that too is re­mark­able: France has lurched from Sec­ond Em­pires to Fifth Re­publics strug­gling to de­vise a last­ing con­sti­tu­tional set­tle­ment for the same small­ish chunk of real es­tate. But the prin­ci­ples that united a baker’s dozen of East Coast Colonies were re­silient enough to ex­pand across a con­ti­nent and half­way around the globe to Hawaii.

Amer­i­cans should, as al­ways, be thank­ful this Thanks­giv­ing, but they should also un­der­stand just how rare in hu­man his­tory their bless­ings are.

Mark Steyn is the se­nior con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor for Hollinger Inc. Publi­ca­tions, se­nior North Amer­i­can colum­nist for Bri­tain’s Tele­graph Group, North Amer­i­can ed­i­tor for the Spec­ta­tor, and a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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