SLOAN | ‘We do indeed owe a debt of gratitude to our country’
Author: Kelly Sloan - June 1, 2018 - Updated: June 1, 2018
This week opened with that most distinctly American of observances, Memorial Day. Much is written every year at this time, and in a variety of forums, about the need, demanded by collective national honor, to recognize that the day is set aside for a much more somber reason than providing a chronological landmark to let Americans know when summer starts, and I ought not belabor the point here, beyond noting how regrettable it is that such reminders are necessary.
But they are necessary, an indictment of a popular culture increasingly shaped by a sense of ingratitude. This is manifested not so much as a deficit of gratefulness towards veterans or those who died before they could become veterans – few in today’s America, beyond the most virulent radical or Westboro Baptist fanatic, would, when nudged, fail to express at least some measure of admiration and respect for those who fought on their behalf.
But should the discussion turn to an examination of what it was they died for, too often even rote expressions of gratitude give way to indifference, or even contempt; giving rise to the question: Is it possible to feel gratitude for the fallen, without being grateful for that for which they fell?
It is probably safe to surmise that most people in America, even today, love their country; but equally so that a steadily growing number do so only in the reductionist, detached sense that people love their local sports team. We collectively love the Rockies, or the Broncos, or the Raptors, not because of any sense of indebtedness to an inherited patrimony, but because, well, they are here rather than in Los Angeles, or Houston, or New York. But we owe them nothing, at least nothing beyond our patronage if they fulfill our need to be entertained by physical contests.
Our nation, however – and indeed all of Western civilization – is far more than an accident of geography and has vouchsafed us an inheritance that deserves more than ephemeral loyalty. By any objective measure we are unfathomably fortunate to live in the western world, and an even smaller number of us are blessed to be living in the United States. The special blessings of our civilization were not something cooked up overnight in a coffee house but are the product of centuries of thought and work, littered along the way with blemishes and mistakes, but also punctuated by fantastic leaps of thought, progress, and artistic virtuosity. What, for instance, do we owe Plato and Aristotle? Or St. Augustine and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Beethoven, Newton and Magellan, Milton and Keats, Locke and Burke – or Jefferson and Madison?
And yet we have steadily reclined into a posture of self-loathing for our own culture; most readily evident in, but not exclusive to, the college campuses, where classes in the history and development of Western Civilization, if offered at all, broach the subject as though talking of a plague. Patriotism is dismissed as a vestigial anachronism at best, irresponsible jingoism at worst.
Kenneth Minogue, the late author and emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics wrote of the difference a century has made to Western civilization, pointing out how at the end of the 19thcentury the prevailing moral concept was duty, while at the beginning of the 21stit is an ever-gestating smorgasbord of “rights,” juxtaposed with a relativism that breeds unending criticism of our civilization. This blanket criticism may be challenged by the very existence of the immigration crisis which continues to hold our national attention; as throughout the Cold War, the flow of immigration is always towards America and the West, never away from it, indicating that there must be something in our culture to admire. But the relativism which has gripped our popular culture has instructed us to replace gratitude with resentment at not having achieved an obligation-free utopia.
Still, every generation so far continues to produce those who are imbued with a strong enough sense that a debt of honor and gratitude is owed to those who bequeathed us what we have, that when they ask themselves “what return shall I make for living under the Bill of Rights?” (to borrow from the liturgical), the response is “I shall take up the sword in its defense.” We do indeed owe a debt of gratitude to our country, and therefore especially to those who lost their lives fighting for it. It is a debt we can never hope to repay, but must never, ever, stop trying to.