Thanksgiving 2007: The American Predicament/Huffington Post | November 22, 2007

Jon Robin Baitz|

Posted November 21, 2007 | 11:46 PM (EST) in the

The Huffington Post


Read More: Christopher Hitchens, Curb Your Enthusiasm, George Bush, Giving Thanks, Keith Olbermann, Mad Men, Marian Wright Edelman, Michel De Montaigne, New York Times, No Child Left Behind, Sidney Lumet, Thanksgiving, The Children’s Defense Fund, Walter Reed, Warren Buffett, Breaking News

After five years of being mostly in L.A. where Thanksgiving generally happens under the harshest of desert suns, I am back home in New York, which pleases me. I was considering sharing my mother’s marvelous and slightly eccentric recipe for turkey, bathed in garlic and a good olive oil and cooked in a brown paper bag, which is not to be opened until the bird is cooked. I have done it many times, to (first) the bafflement and worry, and then (inevitable) pleasure of friends, and it always produces a gorgeous and succulent bird. I’ll save it for next year.



At Passover, I am the one who causes the trouble, and asks unpleasant questions about the current iteration of the land of milk and honey. So you can tell where this is going, regarding the giving of thanks. If you are lucky enough to share the day with friends and family, there is usually a moment where you take in the gathered, the noise, the remains of the meal, kids, dogs, parents, all more or less equally sedated, and sort of smile. You smile at the good fortune of being with people you love, and have known for a very long time. At the safety of it. In my case, there is much to be grateful for. Health, faculties more or less intact, sense of humor more or less intact, and a small measure of financial security for now. So without turning Thanksgiving into some sort of secular Yom Kippur (one is enough, really), a little accounting is in order between the glazed yams and the turkey sandwich the next day.

For instance, while I have never had more, millions of Americans find themselves with less and less. And just ask Warren Buffett about the tax structure; he’ll gladly show you how small the percentage he pays is compared to that of his secretary. So, yes, there are small and large blessings to be grateful for, but the economic gulf that spates us as a nation is not one of them.

On the other hand, a catastrophic presidency is finally on the wane. This is not a partisan observation, it is merely a humanitarian and pragmatic one. This president’s approval ratings are withering indictments of a widely shared common disgust. Lets put it this way, I am thankful that we are 7/8ths the way through a total and utter failure of true leadership. Each day brings us closer to the end of this particular “long national nightmare. ” His own party now treats him more and more like a west-Texas Typhoid Mary or an Elephant Man in an Oval Office.

The “Education President,” who was neither particularly educated or curious (what went on in New Haven?), nor remotely presidential, will be remaindered and celebrated as the very worst president ever to inhabit the Oval Office. His horrifying cadre of roving liars, crusaders and character assassins will go on to do other things, like turning on one another, serving on the boards of suspect companies, and writing self-promoting apologias.

If the nation is careful, and the Democrats don’t start forming into that familiar circular firing squad (note to Hillary and Barack), “No Child Left Behind” with its Orwellian and hijacked name, can be rethought seriously and repaired, if not scrapped. And there is the growing understanding from a benumbed, over-burdened, electorate that the 2008 election matters in ways that may very actually determine how and whether the nation survives in a very new world. Not to mention, you should pardon the expression – the planet itself.

The awakening of a slumbering polity is satisfying. Justice is an odd commodity in American life. It works here, more on paper than in reality, but it actually has been shown to work, and rather better than in many other places. So on Thanksgiving, I will thank our forefathers for designing (on paper) this nation as the imperfectly-perfect experiment in democracy it is, and will give thanks (and dollars) to those who continue to fight for equality in it.

Which leads me to the second object of my gratitude this year: Marian Wright Edelman, the founder, and president of The Children’s Defense Fund. The work they do has never been more important to the health and survival of this nation. The name says it all. I cannot overstate the probity and urgency of what they do every day. The lives they fight for, the promise they offer, as more and more children are left behind. The Bush administration hijacked the bill that CDF fought for, and incidentally pirated the phrase “no child left behind,” despite CDF’s howls of protest and Ted Kennedy’s visible and almost Lear-like despair. So think of Marion Edelman, if you want to give thanks to a hero. Howard Zinn recently noted that she “would make a far better candidate than either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton.” It heartens me to know that Ms. Edelman has the latter’s’ respect, attention, and ear.

One hopes that the generation that benefits from Edelman’s work will be savvy enough to vigorously reject the next prospect of a president of so little character that he flew OVER a flooded and wrecked American city, looked down, and in a Pet Goat redux moment, willingly and doltishly acceded to his porcine and poltroonish advisor’s suggestion that they high-tail it back to the Oval Office. In time for dinner.

I am also grateful that the mainstream press has been stirring itself out of a hallucinatory and extended Bush-induced malarial torpor. Still stung by the years of abdication, we were reminded by the Walter Reed story so ably reported in The Washington Post, that good journalism is essential to a functioning democracy.

And even the somewhat compromised New York Times, (with which I am clearly precipitously obsessed — much like James Stewart in Vertigo), damaged from within by the misguided, tragic fervor of Judith Miller, has shown brilliance in its brave reporting from inside Iraq, not to mention the consistently perceptive commentary of Misters Rich, Kristoff and Krugman, a holy trinity who have done a lot to repair the tarnished rep of the Grey Lady.

As we are seeing, television is not adequate to the task of handling the intricacies of an election. The debates in their current structure resemble nothing so much as Miss America contests from the Bert Parks era. You can not talk about health care in two minutes bites. (Especially if you are Joe Biden.) So newspapers and journalists, both online and in print, are vital to the health of the nation. (Which goes back to my enthusiasm for the CDF and the importance of education.)

Other small pleasures of the year for which I am grateful also include:

Christopher Hitchens, for his entertaining and charming book about the almost total failure of religion, God is NOT Great.

Sidney Lumet’s third-act masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which shows you how much simple force there is to be found with a great script and majestic performances in the hand of a director with a lifetime of wisdom under his belt. At 80, Lumet has made a great, and unflinching American story of fathers and sons, sons and mothers, and curses passed down in a very ugly America. All in the form of a taut little melodrama.

Grateful also to Matthew Weiner, whose TV show Mad Men has bolstered my perpetually challenged faith in TV’s potential to live in metaphor while being both literal and gorgeous.

Also to the finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which managed to surprise viewers by being profoundly political while believably charming them in the midst of proposing that redemption and love are not out of the question for even the most damaged of sick puppies. (I am obviously glad that my own show has received the support of the network and studio who produce it in dealing with the war and sexuality, both homo, hetro, and even geriatric. And that roughly 11 million people tune into it on Sunday nights. )

I am grateful to the National Theater of Scotland for bringing their show Black Watch to the states, at UCLA Live in L.A. (Where sadly, you could get a ticket for you and most of your whole goddamn buddy-list for ANY performance, and at St.Ann’s warehouse in Brooklyn, where tickets simply were impossible to get, except by haunting the lobby like Yorick’s ghost. The play loudly explored the costs of war in a way that married exhilarating theatricality to real politics without a second of preaching to the choir, an alchemy not oft seen on the boards in any country.

Speaking of poor Yorick, I am also oddly grateful to MSNBC for Keith Olbermann’s outraged Shakespearian monologues, which are part Lenny Bruce, part Red Barber, and part Hotspur, and which often incite people to cheer, before they are spread around the interwebs like a computer virus out of a teen anarchist’s Portland basement. You know what, they are shared for good reason: People are hungry for change.

And that leads me to my main point; why gratitude must be so tempered by worry this November. We are becoming a country that is FORGETTING how to talk and forgetting how to LISTEN to one another. This is exemplified perfectly by the boundless partisan rancor of our sub-par elected officials in both houses.

Something is waning in this experiment in democracy – it is Discourse with a capital D. It is civility with a capital C. It is not a matter of red or blue states. It is of a diminishing understanding of pluralism, a disregard for the plight and conditions of others in the service of one’s own agenda, whether that other is a septuagenarian shopkeeper in Baghdad, or an African-American schoolgirl in New Orleans.

The death of pluralism can be seen everywhere, in an aging Kansas farmer who has always voted for Republicans because he liked Ike and doesn’t know how to stop or even how to tell the difference anymore. It can be seen in an Echo Park vegan caterer who has contempt for anybody over thirty . And who refuses to vote at all. It can be seen on the Upper-Westside, awash in smugness and Birkenstocks, as readily as in the uptight rigid suburbs of Atlanta and the ungentrified streets of Oakland.

The death of pluralism has lead to emboldening a louder minority of Faith-Based Hucksters who claim that God is American and a Republican and owns an M-16, and who is offended by evolution, stem cells, and acceptance. The center has not held indeed. The plurality is growing dangerously deaf. Don’t agree? Don’t see it? Just watch the Republican candidates caper and simper like obedient capuchin monkeys to the dulcet tones of creationists and zealots, watch the smiles plastered like rictuses across their faces as they tip-toe around Bob Jones University, wondering how many deals it will take to undo that big deal they made with the devil. Or worse, watch them not give a fuck.

And that leads me to someone I can and do unambiguously take comfort in: Michel de Montaigne.
(My copy –out of print — but with lovely Ben Shahn portrait!)

Just look at his autobiography, you can feel Montaigne grasping with the fact and daily act of being human — in a time of wars and violence — just as horrifying as our own. An earnest Catholic, he was just as avid a skeptic, and utterly allergic to conventional thinking and received wisdom. He lived in and explored the ambivalence and ambiguity of his time, and at least for this essayist, he is Due North. But the words in the book that are so resonant for me this Thanksgiving are not Montaigne’s, but those of the late scholar, Marvin Lowenthal, who edited the book. In his intro, Lowenthal knocks it clear out of the park. I have thought about this passage often during the Bush years, and I am very pleased to share this passage with those who have not had the pleasure:

The dominant issue of his times – the validity of religious beliefs – led Montaigne to wrestle with it as a man today might wrestle with political or economic beliefs. He reached the conclusion that all beliefs are guesses. They are either the guesses of an individual; or, enshrined in custom and habit, the guesses of society. His whole age thought differently. For the mass of men and the leaders in it, beliefs were truth; and truth must be made to prevail — if need be, by fire and sword. Entire nations were laid waste to save the world for truth, No, said Montaigne, quietly, your truth is a guess, and it is setting too high a price upon a guess to burn a man alive for it.

So there you are; much to digest, on top of all that turkey, family, and pumpkin pie: A divided nation, a nation at war and morally committed to that battleground until it is safe for its populace to live there, a fiscal surplus turned into massive and unimaginable debt, a bipolar economy tottering on the brink of recession, millions of children uninsured, and the divide between the wealthy and the poor growing wider and wider and wider, matched only by the indifference to that divide by the rich. May this, our most convivial of national holidays, be marked not just by casual gratitude for our good fortune, the love and health of those near to us, and by tryptophan-induced fugue-states, but also by actions (I will not presume to tell you which; each according to…etc..etc..) that will shore up The American Experiment. A delicate experiment at the best of times, right now, on November 22, 2007, it should be more accurately labeled “The American Predicament.”


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