"We gather together" are the three little words that set the theme for family and friends joining in the celebration of Thanksgiving. The words that follow, "to ask the Lord's blessing," are not from an American hymn but the gratitude of an unknown author set to 16th-century Dutch music. The lyrics put down roots in America as a unifier and were particularly popular during World War II, when our enemies were recognized as "wicked oppressors" and the nation was united against evil.
During that war, nearly everyone invited soldiers and sailors to join the family's Thanksgiving table. They included young men hungry for the feast that would remind them of home and relieve the most miserable malady of all, homesickness, if only for a few hours before they were shipped overseas. It isn't merely nostalgia to recall a time of unity brought to life in the Norman Rockwell images of America. The images were markers documenting authentic faith, remembrances of hope on the homefront and family. These were markers as important as victory gardens, as collecting old rubber, newspapers and tin cans, as sitting around the radio together and listening to Kate Smith sing "God Bless America."
This week we gather together at the family table to participate in the most beloved of national holidays, one that is still devoid of commercial greed. But with no identifiable all-purpose enemy, the common culture is splintered by identity politics, and social media magnifies daily hurts and aggressions in the news, thus exacerbating the growing pains of each generation. Planetary concerns trump patriotic ones. Moral issues are blurred.
Bringing grandparents, parents, teenagers and toddlers together has always been fraught with the vulnerable emotions of each generation. But the current emphasis on diversity and difference makes it difficult to find common ground. Pride in being an American is somewhat out of fashion. Polarized thinking dominates conversation, and it's not just President Donald Trump as focal point of anger, though he hardly contributes to consensus with spontaneous tweets about whatever comes to his mind.
Every grievance, including the president's tweets, is enlarged and expanded on cable and internet 24/7. Screens are relentlessly miniaturized and carried everywhere, and it's even impossible to keep electronic devices away from feasts and family reunions. That's too bad. No one expects to make Thanksgiving a politics-free zone, but we can dream. The Country Music Awards tried to keep politics off the red carpet, but it only led to defiant gags during the show, such as changing song titles to "Before He Tweets" and "Stand By Your Manafort." Humor (sometimes with wit and sometimes not) can sometimes dilute disputes.
So can perspective and context. Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to listen to other points of view and different perspectives that span several wars and radicalized cultural attitudes. For the oldest at the table, certain memories remain fresh and clear: the unabashed patriotism that defeated Nazis and fascists and Asian imperialists, and the character and toughness of the male protector who put his life on the line in uniform and sought only a little peace and security when he returned home.
The baby-boom generation confronted different challenges. Boomers were obsessed with righting wrongs, racial discrimination and unequal opportunity for men and women. They marched, waved placards and enacted new laws to make the system fair. But change doesn't drive events in a straight line. Progress is slowed by bumps and obstacles, detours and diversions, as idealistic purity is thwarted by unintended consequences. Millennials and iGens move forward with identity politics, emphasizing differences rather than appealing to what makes society whole.
The collective sense of pride in country of the oldest generation is not born of shallow triumphalism but a nation that stood up to the evil intolerance and totalitarianism their ancestors fled, and forever tries to make things better. They're descendents of immigrants who preserved separate identities every bit as challenging as the new immigrants arriving today. But the ideal of the melting pot -- "out of many, one" -- worked better than the identity politics that now threatens national cohesion.
Continuing to change America for the good is such an important goal that discussions on how to do it can't be narrowed to 140 characters, fact-checking with Wikipedia or resorting to assorted sources on Facebook. So here's my wish: May the multiple generations that gather together this Thanksgiving put away their electronic tools, enjoy the conversation, and talk without the arrogance of hindsight or the narrowness of political correctness. Happy Thanksgiving (and give my regards to the turkey).