Michael Ryan

Are we thankful for freedom, opportunity? Do we act like it?

People gather to remember the fallen on Memorial Day

People gathered for the Memorial Day remembrance event at the North Carolina Capitol lawn to lay a wreath and remember those who died. Sergeant Major Holly C. Prafke spoke at the event.
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People gathered for the Memorial Day remembrance event at the North Carolina Capitol lawn to lay a wreath and remember those who died. Sergeant Major Holly C. Prafke spoke at the event.

Other than food, family, football and great pre-Christmas sales, what were you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Likely for your good health, if you’re blessed with it. A meaningful job, if you have one. Shelter and comfort. Rest and restoration. The unconditional love of true friends. An occasional trip or treat. A vibrant community with lots of diversions. Peace and security in the homeland — and those men and women who make it possible.

Add to that list of blessings a country whose government was formed largely to protect your right to pursue such happiness. Thanksgiving is a uniquely American and characteristic tradition, and for good reason: Giving thanks just seems to come naturally in a country designed to create the conditions for it.

You wouldn’t know any of this, judging from our public dialogue. As good as we’ve got it in this country, my how we moan and groan. We roar our terrible roars and gnash our terrible teeth and roll our terrible eyes and show our terrible claws to anyone we can find to blame for our terrible lot in life.

All the while, thousands from Central America stream toward our border hoping and praying a better life lies just across it.

We know it does. We’re living it, despite all our braying.

But giving thanks for something once a year doesn’t mean much if it’s neglected the other 364 days. If we truly feel blessed by America, we need to act like it.

Understanding and appreciating its underlying greatness is a good start. Do we? Consider: New York Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was recently ridiculed for referring to the Senate, House and White House as the “three chambers of the government.” And on a basic civics test administered to the public a few years ago, 71 percent failed and the average score was 49 percent.

Moreover, once asked by a foreign journalist whether he believed in American exceptionalism, President Obama answered: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country ...”

With genuine respect toward the former president, I would argue his answer betrays a fundamental and likely widespread misunderstanding of the concept of American exceptionalism. It’s not national pride, as he suggests. Many people, as he points out, are proud of their country; by definition, if something such as national pride is so common, it is definitely not “exceptional.”

Nor is American exceptionalism a result of our own greatness. We’re not born any better than anyone else on the planet.

What is exceptional, and what makes the country so great, is our system of self-governance, individual sovereignty and the rule of law — rather than the whim of man — that flows from our founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and more.

To this day, for example, no one else has our First Amendment. In most every other society, one can be criminally charged for holding to and expressing the “wrong” views.

Such freedoms as the right to private property, largely unencumbered by the heavy hand of government, have led to prosperity and a long litany of blessings unprecedented in human history.

Beyond appreciating that and understanding how it came about, what are we doing to sustain and nurture America? A self-governed nation is only as good and strong as the citizens who make it up. I maintain there are five pillars holding up our societal infrastructure, something I call the Five C’s: civics, citizenship, civility, the Constitution and character.

I would also argue that, particularly in the past half-century, there’s been an alarming amount of erosion in those pillars — from a growing ignorance of how our system works, to corrosion in civility and cohesion, to an eating-away at our ethical and moral foundations.

What do you think? Am I right? Where am I wrong? If I am right, what can be done about it? I’ve got my own views on that, which I’ve shared with audiences over the years and which I’ll explore here later. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. Write us a letter to the editor or shoot me an email. Share this with your friends and see what they think.

I’d be most thankful — as should we all.

JFK told us to ask what we can do for our country. What’s our answer?

Michael Ryan is Opinion Editor of The Star-Telegram.