When plenty is not enough

Diana West

11/24/2006 12:01:00 AM - Diana West

One more word about Thanksgiving.

It is above all my favorite holiday, maybe because it retains its essence. Not so other special days on the calendar. The wild orgy of consumption beginning the day after Thanksgiving has long rendered the Christmas season the most pagan of religious holidays. Most of the other holidays we keep according to the federal government's schedule -- Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Veteran's Day -- are marked as three-day weekends generically suited to barbecuing, season permitting. This is probably natural, as the momentous events such days commemorate recede into practically ancient history.

But Thanksgiving is different. Harkening back about four centuries to our founding narrative of Pilgrims and Indians, of thanks-be for plenty, the holiday still holds much of its traditional allure and even divine inspiration. To this day, we, the figurative (if not literal) descendants of those Pilgrims and Indians who sat down to sup together sometime in the fall of 1621, continue to give thanks for American plenty. And on Thanksgiving Day, when plenty is manifested in a simple and emphatically homey feast, our level of satisfaction and our sense of gratitude remain in balance. By Christmas, of course, nothing is in balance. "Plenty" tends to have become "glut," and heartfelt gratitude has curdled into a conflicted sense of embarrassment. This is all the more reason to savor Thanksgiving, a day when plenty is still "enough" and not "too much."

In olden days, such plenty meant survival -- literally. With enough food, the fate of the Pilgrim colony, founded to perpetuate austere Puritan ideals, was nearly assured. In our day, plenty alone provides no such guarantee. Although our material wealth as a society has never been greater, our survival as that Puritan-originated society seems more in jeopardy than ever before. Maybe that's because plenty has become an end in itself. And, truth be told, plenty in America today is hardly just a 20-lb. turkey on the table. It's a $500-$600 Sony PlayStation 3 in the home entertainment center. Which seems to have turned our notion of "survival" into what we do until Sony comes out with PlayStation 4.

This might be enough, I suppose, if we really lived in a PlayStation world. We could eat too much and buy too much and play too many really repulsive games such as Grand Theft Autos, I- IV, and just mark time. But in what may be an inversion of American exceptionalism, our singular sense of ourselves has somehow insulated our entire nation from what it's like to play for keeps -- from what it means to live in a new age of Islamic jihad. With the exception of our military families, we, as a people, have remained insulated from our time of war.

Maybe this all started, at least in earnest, after 9/11 when George W. Bush, even as he prepared to fight "terror" -- that politically correct and historically misleading term for jihad violence -- implored Americans to get back to those shopping malls, just as if the nation could fight a war in perpetuity without ever noticing it. And so we have, so far. So vast is our "plenty" that we can send our armies across the sea to the desert and never feel it in our pocketbooks or our bellies.

Is that good? It doesn't feel good. At least, it doesn't feel real. That is, it feels strange for a nation to make war without moving to anything resembling a war footing. Saving string as our parents did during World War II isn't going to do much for the modern military, but how about the president asking Americans to avoid driving one day a week? Without any thought of sacrifice on the home front, "plenty" serves as a buffer between us and reality, and our extremely comfortable way of life serves to distract us from what it takes to maintain that extremely comfortable way of life.

Of course, the election indicates Americans were feeling something -- that things were going wrong in Iraq and elsewhere, although it is distressing that the Democrats they have empowered hold no better answers than the Republicans.

This intellectual stalemate should make this one of those winters of discontent you hear about. At least I hope it will. If such dissatisfaction goads us to think past the distractions of plenty, and face up to the difficult, politically incorrect, and uncomfortable facts of beating back global jihad, it would be something to be truly thankful for.