Sometimes all it takes is the view of someone not from the US to see the special meaning of Thanksgiving and what it is to live in America.
A THANKSGIVING POST: My old colleague, the legendary British journalist and drunk Henry Fairlie, had a favourite story about his long, lascivious love affair with America. He was walking down a suburban street one afternoon in a suit and tie, passing familiar rows of detached middle-American dwellings and lush, green Washington lawns. In the distance a small boy - aged perhaps six or seven - was riding his bicycle towards him.
And in a few minutes, as their paths crossed on the pavement, the small boy looked up at Henry and said, with no hesitation or particular affectation: "Hi." As Henry told it, he was so taken aback by this unexpected outburst of familiarity that he found it hard to say anything particularly coherent in return. And by the time he did, the boy was already trundling past him into the distance.
In that exchange, Henry used to reminisce, so much of America was summed up. That distinctive form of American manners, for one thing: a strong blend of careful politeness and easy informality. But beneath that, something far more impressive. It never occurred to that little American boy that he should be silent, or know his place, or defer to his elder. In America, a six-year-old cyclist and a 55-year-old journalist were equals. The democratic essence of America was present there on a quiet street on a lazy summer afternoon.
Henry couldn't have imagined that exchange happening in England - or Europe, for that matter. Perhaps now, as European - and especially British - society has shed some of its more rigid hierarchies, it could. But what thrilled him about that exchange is still a critical part of what makes America an enduringly liberating place. And why so many of us who have come to live here find, perhaps more than most native Americans, a reason to give thanks this Thanksgiving.
When I tuck into the turkey on Thursday, I'll have three things in particular in mind. First, the country's pathological obsession with the present. America is still a country where the past is anathema. Even when Americans are nostalgic, they are nostalgic for a myth of the future. What matters for Americans, in small ways and large, is never where you have come from - but where you are going, what you are doing now, or what you are about to become. In all the years I have lived in America - almost a decade and a half now - it never ceases to amaze me that almost nobody has ever demanded to know by what right I belong here. Almost nobody has asked what school I went to, what my family is like, or what my past contains. (In Britain I was asked those questions on a daily, almost hourly, basis.) Even when I took it on myself to be part of the American debate, nobody ever questioned my credentials for doing so. I don't think that could ever happen in a European context (when there's a gay American editor of The Spectator, let me know). If Europeans ever need to know why Ronald Reagan captured such a deep part of the American imagination, this is surely part of the answer. It was his reckless futurism (remember star wars and supply-side economics?) and his instinctive, personal generosity.
Second, I'm thankful for the American talent for contradiction. The country that sustained slavery for longer than any other civilised country is also the country that has perhaps struggled more honestly for the notion of racial equality than any other. The country that has a genuine public ethic of classlessness also has the most extreme economic inequality in the developed world. The country that is most obsessed with pressing the edge of modernity also has the oldest intact constitution in the world. The country that still contains a powerful religious right has also pushed the equality of homosexuals further than ever before in history. A country that cannot officially celebrate Christmas (it would erase the boundary between church and state) is also one of the most deeply religious nations on the planet. Americans have learnt how to reconcile the necessary contradictions not simply because their country is physically big enough to contain them, but because it is spiritually big enough to contain them. Americans have learnt how to reconcile the necessary contradictions of modern life with a verve and a serenity few others can muster. It is a deeply reassuring achievement.
Third, I'm thankful because America is, above all, a country of primary colours. Sometimes the pictures Americans paint are therefore not as subtle, or as elegant, or even as brilliant as masterpieces elsewhere. But they have a vigour and a simplicity that is often more viscerally alive. Other nations may have become bored with the Enlightenment, or comfortable in post-modern ennui. Americans find such postures irrelevant. Here the advertisements are cruel, the battles are stark and the sermons are terrifying. And here, more than anywhere else, the most vital of arguments still go on. Does God exist? Are the races equal? Can the genders get along? Americans believe that these debates can never get tired, and that their resolution still matters, because what happens in America still matters in the broader world. At its worst, this can bespeak a kind of arrogance and crudeness. But at its best, it reflects a resilient belief that the great questions can always be reinvented and that the answers are always relevant. In the end, I have come to appreciate this kind of naivety as a deeper form of sophistication. Even the subtlest of hues, after all, are merely primary colours mixed.
At the end of November each year this restless, contradictory and simple country finds a way to celebrate itself. The British, as befits a people at ease with themselves, do not have a national day. When the French do, their insecurity shows. Even America, on the fourth of July, displays a slightly neurotic excess of patriotism. But on Thanksgiving, the Americans resolve the nationalist dilemma. They don't celebrate themselves, they celebrate their good fortune. And every November, as I reflect on a country that can make even an opinionated Englishman feel at home, I know exactly how they feel.
"My America," first published November 24, 1996, Sunday Times of London
Have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!