With the world seemingly teetering between democracy and authoritarianism, you might feel overshadowed by gloom this Thanksgiving.
With some parts of the world torn by savage war and others wracked by persistent poverty and hopelessness, giving thanks may seem like a stretch. But make no mistake: More people than ever are living on this planet, and more are living better. Give thanks.
These are the people of a bountiful epoch stretching from the end of World War II to this day. In all of human history, never have so many enjoyed so much.
I am part of that most fortunate generation that grew up after the war ended, where hope marched arm-in-arm with prosperity. We expected to do much better than our parents in every way, and we did.
We expected life to improve on all its frontiers, from mobility to health, and it has. We expected to own something of value (maybe a house, a car, some savings), and we have.
More than ever, we have lived lives free from want, larded with good things. We have had high expectations, and they have been fulfilled.
My life and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of others have been better in every way than that of my parents and their contemporaries. They survived the Great Depression, a world war, and a life that was harder in every way.
Women were drudges, often confined to the home, cleaning, cooking, child-raising and just coping. Technology and social activism freed women from domestic slavery, which had been their lot since time immemorial. Now, they expect a full and equal part in life, and they are mostly getting it.
I am mobile in ways my parents never dreamed. My mother never traveled by plane and never expected to. She died of a cancer that was just allowed to spread because there was no other option.
My father’s greatest hope for himself was that he could provide food and shelter for his family. He had little of his own and expected little. His only indulgence was smoking. It was the thing he did that was his own, a small, comforting treat in a hard life as a mechanic.
Our family could only afford to take one vacation when I was growing up. Now, vacations are a given for many people, as is the mobility to make them special. When I am in an airport, I am awed by all the people going to and from all those places. This is not just true for the United States but for the whole prosperous world.
What makes for the life that so many now enjoy?
First and foremost is a democracy. Yes, querulous, slow to act democracy.
Authoritarianism ultimately affects the individual, subtracting freedom and adding nothing over time. Authoritarian governments soon start telling their people where they can travel, what they should believe. And they use fear as a tool, ever-present.
Countries that have enjoyed the bounty that has flowed since World War II are those with liberal democratic government, capitalism and a stout separation of church and state. This trinity is essential. If one is impeded, the whole structure is deformed. Implicit in this structure is that technology will be embraced, not impeded by the state, disallowed by religion, or monopolized by a few.
Even in these times of gloom, many have reason to cherish what they have and to be thankful. Thanksgiving as an institution is American, but the concept of gratitude after the harvest is universal.
What we have cultivated in the liberal democracies is a crop beyond all expectations. There is reason to give thanks.
Enjoy your family gathering and the bounty everywhere when the structure is right.