Our epitaph will no doubt be that we were good people, nice people, who tried to do the right thing. Once a year we were even thankful, unless of course we were on an early morning shopping spree or being forced to work selling gadgets and gewgaws at “discount” prices to people who could barely afford them—the ones on the shopping sprees, hoping desperately that overpriced gifts for their loved ones could assuage the pain caused by the economic trap that had been sprung on them by moguls who enjoyed their own Thanksgivings over fine wines in gated communities far from the strip malls and big box stores.
It’s hard for me to write today; things look pretty bleak in the land despite the fact that I and my family are able to live in some comfort on the margins of an industry largely predicated on the wealth of some, if not others. A week ago I was giving the ritual induction speech for my school’s honor society, a little oration that includes the line “justice is slow, and at times just plain absent.” I hoped this week that this phrase, which has been ringing especially loudly in my ears since Monday evening, is echoing in the heads of the high-achieving students we enrolled as well as in those of their families, peers, and teachers.
Seldom have I felt more alienated from the structures that run the society I live in; never have I felt more poor and powerless—and this from an educated, middle-aged, middle-class, straight white male, a guy who has been dealt a pretty high hand in the game of “cultural capital.” I don’t understand or really trust law enforcement any more, although I’ll never be stopped just for Driving While White and I probably won’t be shot at if I do something out of the way. I read my weekly New Yorker with increasing disgust at the lifestyles of the very rich and not even famous at whom the advertisements are directed; I pretty much toss out unread the travel magazine to which something I have done entitles me to a free subscription, as the conspicuous consumption it ballyhoos makes me queasy and angry.
I’m not a liberal Puritan, at least by contemporary Massachusetts standards. I eat meat, sometimes even fast food, and I drive a four-wheel drive box that gets annoyingly bad mileage. We keep cats, and we sent our kids (at faculty discounts) to private schools. One of my kids was fourth-generation at a college under fire for legacy admits, although there was no financial or other material advantage to admitting him, any more than there would have been for any of his schoolteacher forebears. I watch cable TV and buy the occasional lottery ticket. I am not a victim, nor do I choose to play that role, and I try to avoid sounding holier-than-thou, although I am self-righteous about bicyclists who don’t obey traffic rules. I’m mostly a romantic optimist about things.
But today I feel lost. I don’t know whether I live in a society characterized by its aspirations and opportunities or in a nation tired of aspiration and opportunity that is beginning to give in to all of its worst impulses: materialism, racism, apathy, selfishness, and a kind of pervasive sociopathic schadenfreude that allows us to observe myriad quotidian horrors and analyze them only for their entertainment value. I worry that we are becoming our own daily beast.
Ferguson has only made my funk worse, but the election and the low voter turnout earlier this month were hard to bear. I can’t figure out whether our national leadership in all three branches of government is cleverly playing some deep game or whether it is as adrift and broken as it seems. I trust that my economic future is at least moderately safe, but I won’t be surprised if the whole shebang goes south one day. I’m not personally afraid of terrorists in my life, but part of me expects to be wrong on that.
It’s very hard to be a romantic optimist on Thanksgiving 2014. It’s hard to be grateful for my privileges when I know they come at a cost to so many others and when they actually seem to mean less and less against the extreme privilege of millionaires and billionaires. Things may not look as grim as they did when Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863 in “the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity” (as Lincoln put it), but they look a whole lot more dismal to me than they must have when the Plymouth colonists and their Wampanoag neighbors broke bread in the 1620s—the colonists happy that they had survived to start building their little New Jerusalem and the Wampanoags happy for some more or less amicable trade partners in their depopulated lands. Of course, that relationship eventually soured, affording me one more batch of unearned historical privileges at the expense of others.
Like a lot of us, I’m left feeling most grateful for my family and for the (I hope) benign privilege I have been given to seek happiness and sustenance in a field, education, that brings rewards well beyond the material. When our family of teachers and students gathers today to eat our ritual turkey, we’ll have one another to be thankful for, and I can hope, as an educator with an obligation to be hopeful, that I can figure out how to transmute my current weltschmerz into humility and humble action and, indeed, hope for all of those of us who sit in discomfort with our privilege. We just need to stop accepting the stratifications and inequities as “the way things are” and, especially for the privileged, to stop blaming the de-privileged and disenfranchised for wanting opportunity and justice. It shouldn’t ever be, or appear, just plain absent.