Thanksgiving: A Good Day to “Come Out”
Once again, I find myself abroad at Thanksgiving. In the past, that feeling has been bittersweet. There was bitterness at being far from home, mixed with the sweetness of anticipated homecoming. And―though I hate to confess it―there was sweetness also in an inbred sense of America’s global superiority.
This year much has changed. I still look forward to my return home, which will come just days after Thanksgiving. Yet the smugness of returning to an unquestionably better place has vanished utterly.
I have always been skeptical of American “exceptionalism.” Unfortunately, America today is “exceptional” in much the same sense that Mongoloid children are “exceptional.” Pride, arrogance, stubbornness, belligerence and stupidity have stained our national character as never before. It is hard to be an American abroad today without feeling a sense of shame, if only for destroying a global economy that―by our effort and under our leadership―not long ago seemed poised on the edge of a new, global Golden Age.
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. Unlike most other holidays at home and abroad, it celebrates no victory in war, no conquest or territorial acquisition, and no saint, miracle or religion. It recalls the simple beauty of refugees from religious and political persecution, barely surviving in what was for them a wilderness, being helped by friendly and cooperative native people.
In our very first Thanksgiving dinner, immigrant European refugees and native Americans feasted together, each learning from the other. So-called “Indians” contributed much of the food, as well as much of the know-how to grow or gather it in a harsh new land. That simple cooperation seemed to me a beautiful paradigm for inter-cultural relations. It still does.
The internment, relocation and near-genocide of our “Indians” came later. They mar the promise of that beautiful fall day considerably.
But they do not extinguish it entirely. Though tarnished, the promise of that day still shines brightly. We still are the world’s only nation―and by far the most significant major power―to be led by a member of an oppressed and once enslaved minority. We are still the nation to which many around the world seek entrance for the opportunity to live, work and prosper free from persecution based on skin color, native language, ethnicity, religion, politics, or family connections. Our “Indians” still survive, and many prosper, in a state of relative political and cultural autonomy that many oppressed minorities abroad might envy. And we all speak a common English language, with innumerable accents, including many native ones.
So in spite of our many failings, we still lift our lamp beside the golden door. In that alone, we are a luminous example.
Thus Thanksgiving still has meaning. No doubt it will as long as America (or the idea of an America) persists. Hence it’s still a good day to “come out” from behind my anonymity.
My reasons for doing so I’ve already outlined. Now that I’m fully retired from teaching (although I still profess from time to time), I have much less need to preserve my professional neutrality . In our personality-obsessed culture, anonymity seems to detract from acceptance of (and traffic to!) this blog more than I ever dreamed it would. And there is much in my background that, absent the fetters of anonymity, might enhance my credibility.
For those who hoped for some earth-shaking revelation, I apologize in advance. I am far from a household name. I’m one of those anonymous experts from the “next levels down” that I’ve described in an earlier post. I have spent a quarter century in school, have been a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow, an NSF-NATO Postdoctoral Fellow, an articles editor on the Harvard Law Review, and a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow. I've lived abroad in England and in Russia. I have visited every one of the seven continents, including Antarctica, although travel in Africa has been sparse and China remains on my list.
In my 66 years I’ve been a scientist, engineer, lawyer, and law professor. These four disparate careers give me an unusual perspective that I hope informs this blog. My last two careers―law practice and teaching―give me special insight into a society (ours) with far too many lawyers having far too much power.
And all my careers have given me an abiding respect for facts, evidence and logical deductions from both, plus a healthy skepticism of simple theory. The more you know, it seems to me, the more you come to believe that the simple abstractions our grapefruit-sized brains are capable of forming and retaining are usually misleading and often flat wrong.
Wisdom and pragmatism often abide in forsaking theory (including ideology) for facts and reality in all their complexity and detail. Fox’s cardinal sin, it seems to me, is deriving facts from opinions, rather than vice versa. That approach is very close to the clinical definition of insanity.
It may seem inconsistent with my veneration for facts, but I’m now working on my first novel. History tells us that stories (myths and fiction) can be far more influential in motivating change than fact. God knows we Americans believe many fictional things, including our own omnipotence. And God knows truth can be stranger than fiction. Who would have guessed, for example, that a blond, right-wing Norwegian, not an Arab or Muslim, would perpetrate Europe’s single greatest terrorist atrocity since the rape of Sarajevo by Christian Serbs?
My idol in this regard is Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose famous novel Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War. I am hardly presumptuous enough to compare myself with her. She probably ranks with Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin and Einstein in changing human thought and behavior. And she did it with fact-based fiction, avoiding equations and the curse of all those damned footnotes. If I can emulate her even in some minuscule way, that would sate my desire to feel a small measure of usefulness in my old age.
My name? I might as well extend the suspense a bit. Few who don’t know me already will recognize it. You can find it on my profile, and you can find a fairly complete résumé here, and a better photo and links to some of my books here. But don’t look for novels; my books to date have been dry and tedious law tomes.
In posts to come, I now can cite my background for greater credibility. I intend to emphasize my experience with and in Russia, whose language I have studied off and on for all my adult life, and whose transition away from internal terror and Communism I witnessed personally in a fellowship in Moscow in 1993, teaching in the same Institute that once educated Vladimir Putin.
But for the moment, let’s return to the bitter and the sweet. It’s sweet, I think, to “come out” now and to be free to be myself. Yet it’s bitter to do so at a time when so much is wrong in the world, and when we Americans are responsible for so much of it. As an educator, I find it particularly galling that so much of what is wrong today stems from fuzzy thinking or deliberate, self-serving nonsense that we Yanks propagate. So I intend to do what I can, in the time left to me, to set things right.
One thing I ask of readers. With my name, clever users can discover my personal e-mail address. I implore all not to use it, but to confine responses to this blog to comments on it. I pledge to be fair (albeit slow) as a moderator and post all comments that are (1) civil and (2) substantive and (3) avoid spam and abuse. Right now, further moderation of comments will have to await my return home.