To all my friends around the United States, and beyond. I am writing to give thanks for your friendship, for your interest in my work, for your commitment to the principles of Enlightenment. In the wake of the raucous election and the American circus of failed political civility; in the wake of the appalling and unnecessary crisis on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota; in the wake of the orgy of self-pity being played out in public by those who cannot except the will of the American people as expressed in the November 8 election; in the wake of the continuing refugee crisis in Syria and the Mediterranean; I want to try to concentrate on what we can all be thankful for as 2016 moves toward a close. We live in the world’s first and most important Enlightenment Republic.
The principles of the Enlightenment are simple:
- Civility, respect, generosity of spirit. “Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.”
- Reason. Aristotle said “man” is a rational animal. In his savage indignation at human darkness, Jonathan Swift said we are only capax rationis, capable of rationality. We must labor every day, in every encounter, in all that we read and see, and in particular in all that we say, to be rational.
- The world is knowable. Humans must do all they can to measure, classify, describe, and understand the cosmos. If “reason is our only oracle,” as Jefferson put it, science should be our lens and our standard. It is insane to politicize science. Science is the foundation of reality from which politics is then free to determine public policy. Humans are up to the task of life. Humanism is a surer guide to happiness than received religion.
- Books are the world’s primary vehicle of knowledge and insight. “I cannot live without books,” said Jefferson. I could not agree more. Newton confessed that if he saw more than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Imagine a life in which books play no significant role. For me that would be no life at all.
- Friendship is the highest form of human relationship. Love, romance, the works of the libido, family, kinship, the parent and the child–all these things matter greatly, but there is nothing superior in an enlightened world than friendship. My friendship with my daughter is as good as anything in life. When I have to revert to father and she child, we both squirm a little and then do our duty.
- Unlimited freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience. Americans boast about this but in fact we are not very good at it. Tocqueville rightly understood that we honor our freedom of thought strangely: by freely behaving like a homogenous herd, and shunning ideas that stray from a pretty narrow circle of the “norm.” We need to break open the American mind and cherish, not punish, thoughts that are too rich and subtle for the “talking points memo.”
- We need a dynamic relationship with the Earth, with Nature, with Soil. For Jefferson it was gardening. For Thoreau it was berry picking. For Muir it was clinging to a tree in a storm, “like a bobolink.” For Meriwether Lewis it was walking the grizzly fields around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. For me it is wading through the Little Missouri River, finding a gravel bar, reading a book, but mostly looking up at the stunning, improbably badlands all around me. Or bobbing down the “mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River” with friends at the end of a long day of canoeing. This year, with a little help, I canned 150 jars of tomato sauce, 40 of apple sauce, and 75 bags of creamed corn. Plus ate out of my garden for at least twenty evenings.
- Moderation, integrity, balance, good sense. I’m with Hamlet: “Give me that man who is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him in my heart’s core, aye, in my heart of hearts, as I do thee.” The search for equanimity is one of the hardest of all human quests. We have to work at it every day and, when we fail, we must seek to return to the center and make amends for our rush to extremes.
- Tolerance. We must remember Jefferson’s insight, that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” and his view that another person’s views “neither pick my pocket nor break my leg.” A very large percentage of the white people’s anger at the Standing Rock Lakota is that “they don’t want to live like us.” It offends some white folks that Native Americans prefer their sovereign homelands, including all the difficulties there, to the Disney World, sitcom, marble countertop, tailgate party universe that Anglo-Americans have constructed for themselves. We say we want their lives to be better, but what bugs us, if we are willing to admit it, is that Native Americans have largely rejected the precise paradigm we call The American Dream. It might be worth remembering that 99.999% of all Muslims are peace-loving family people just like us; 99.999% of African-Americans just want to do their work, love their families, and enjoy their lives just like us; that 99.9999% of all the people of the Middle East spend as little time as possible thinking about the United States and just wish to get on with their lives. Almost all of the people protesting at Standing Rock are peace-loving Americans who want to be taken seriously for their sovereign differences and not treated like second class or third class citizens merely because they belong to a community our ancestors chose to overwhelm and dislocate.
- Finally, we need to remember as we cherish our abundance on Thanksgiving Thursday, that millions of Americans will not share our abundance, that they struggle to feed and clothe their children, and they are un or under-employed through no fault of their character, but because our economy is not tuned to provide a decent subsistence, an authentic job, and a living wage to all of its citizens. Our abundance comes at a cost. If we forget that, we are not Jefferson’s people.
I love America. How can one live in the American West, on the banks of the Missouri and near to the banks of the Little Missouri River and not love America? As I start to thaw out the turkey, my heart is out with the mountain lions and the owls in the vast wildness that is still the American West.