Thanksgiving and Our Future

Nov 24, 2016

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. The turkey dinner reminds me of the pilgrims at New Plymouth and the rich cultural contributions of the native tribes. I think of the Revolution and the achievement of the U.S. Constitution. Although I acknowledge the harshest and most disappointing elements of our history, what sustains me always is the sense that our Constitution can change and has changed over time, opening new freedoms for African Americans and women, for example. As a nation, we haven’t quite achieved equality for either group, but we’ve continued to move in that direction. I’m thankful for the bravery of people like the abolitionists and the slaves themselves (and their families who suffered through many years of de facto slavery in the South after the official emancipation). Americans are characterized by a refusal to give up hope, and such people are the best examples of that quality.

Thanksgiving is a holiday traditionally ruled over by women, and so I’d like to focus on the question of women’s rights, which seem to be under assault today. I’m thankful for the women who fought relentlessly for the right to vote. I’m thankful that my mother took on a role of strength in my family and in that way taught me to respect women and to take part in the ongoing defense of the dignity of women. Like most Americans, I am outraged to learn about American leaders who actively abuse women, like Roger Ailes who demanded sexual favors from female newscasters at Fox News, or our president-elect, who bragged about sexually assaulting women and about the pleasure he takes in objectifying women generally.

We’re in danger of stepping backwards, but I don’t give up hope, because there are so many signs that things are changing definitively for the better. At Beloit College in the 1980s, my favorite professor, a great scholar named Marion Stocking, told the story of her first job interview in the early 1950s. The department chair had been talking with her for half an hour about her research, when he suddenly stopped to say, “I’m really enjoying our conversation, but I’m beginning to feel bad about taking up your time like this. I don’t want to mislead you. There’s just no way we’re going to hire a woman.” Today, in my own department at IU South Bend, I have more female colleagues than men, and the school is better for it. I’m thankful for the women who, full of enthusiasm, pushed for inclusion after World War II, and for the men who supported gender equality. Marion Stocking was ultimately hired at Beloit College because the two young, liberal-minded male faculty members talked the older professors into judging the candidates simply on the basis of the professional qualifications they would advertise. The best candidate would be able to check off every box on the list of objectives, and the winner of that gender-blind contest turned out to be my great mentor.

The unspoken motto of America has never been “Make America Great Again.” Rather, we see the world in organic terms. Success is a matter of adaptation and innovation. We see our greatness in our future, fearlessly welcoming the freedom of other people—the previously excluded, the foreign, the young, the odd, the visionary. America is a big country in the emotional sense. It’s a country with a big heart. That’s the source of our greatness. We have to insist that any new government continue to sustain this dynamic quality of American life.