Thursday, November 22, 2001

Tribune Media Services

We live in a culture that for the most part spends a lot of time concentrating on the dogs that bark instead of the multitude of ones that don’t. Our heroes are invariably the folks who forced change either by expanding freedom, denouncing corruption or, simply, by building a better mousetrap.

And that’s good. One of the things that make America, the jewel in the crown of Western civilization, so special is that we are always looking to improve ourselves. We do that by criticizing, hectoring and challenging each other, our ideas, our civil institutions, our employers and our governments (we have thousands of them).

Not all criticisms are fair or accurate, and some are just plain silly. But when an idea is valid, we pounce on it and nurture it. We discard bad ideas and bad habits as a matter of reflex, making us the most adaptable people in the history of the world. Indeed, we’ve all had to become quick studies, post-Sept. 11, on what happens to societies that are too hidebound to the past.

But while pointing out flaws is important, even vital, to our way of life, it is just as important to call attention to the wheels that don’t squeak. And since it is Thanksgiving, it’s worth saying thanks to the average Americans, past and present, who in their own ways have made this country great.

In 1676, Isaac Newton wrote to a friend, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

I’ve always loved that phrase — “standing upon the shoulders of giants” — because it so neatly captures the conservative, and correct, understanding of progress and history.

Scientists understand — far better than the intellectuals who play with words for a living — that knowledge is cumulative and that we don’t discard old ideas simply because they are old. (If scientists worked like sociologists, we’d hear a steady stream of pronouncements that the Pythagorean theorem needs to be replaced by a less approach that takes into account the feelings of people who feel oppressed by triangles.) Progress comes from building on the old, not from discarding it carelessly.

In all of the post-Sept. 11 discussions about civil liberties, we are constantly reminded of America’s “troubled” or “less than exemplary” record on civil liberties during times of war. On the issue of military tribunals, we’re told that the president is, in the words of William Safire, assuming “dictatorial powers.” We’re warned of slippery slopes everywhere — in roving wiretaps and prolonged detentions for a handful of Arab-Americans.

Fine, good, great; let’s have these arguments, let’s hear these criticisms. But during Thanksgiving, let’s also remember that we’ve been on the same slippery slope for more than two centuries. And yet, from the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed to the moment you ate your turkey dinner on Thanksgiving day 2001, Americans have become more, not less, free.

Maybe it hasn’t happened on a month-to-month basis, but the trend is undeniable. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women and later blacks, the breakthroughs in technology that make Americans the most mobile — i.e. free —people in the history of the world: All of these things describe a society, with its eyes on the prize, climbing up a slippery slope, not swishing down it pell-mell.

This monumental success story has many authors (starting with, we should note on this essentially religious holiday, our Creator). But in America, we concentrate almost entirely on the critics and reformers.

Equally heroic, but much less celebrated, are the untold legions of people who denied themselves the temptation to do wrong in the first place. We publicly lament the policeman who took a bribe or unjustifiably roughed up a suspect; the public official who crossed some abstract line between diligence and abuse; the businessman who cut one too many corners. Again: Fine, good, great, that’s what we do.

But let us remember that the success of America derives not just from the critics who denounce these exceptions to the rule, but from the fact that these bad apples did not spoil the whole bunch in the first place. If our governments and institutions (which are nothing more than collections of Americans following specific rules to accomplish specific missions) were even a fraction as corrupt as the mavericks and troublemakers claim, then the mavericks and troublemakers would be silent and, more likely, in unmarked graves.

This Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for the fact that the American people, as a people, are standing on the shoulders of the giants who built this country — and for the fact that it would take an awful lot to knock us off.

You can write to Jonah Goldberg in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at

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