FOR many, Thanksgiving may have little to do with giving thanks for something. In American society it is a gateway holiday: the start of holiday shopping, the first pangs of quandary over a diet strategy through the New Year, and the shakeout phase of football leading to the college and professional bowls.
What one thing should we be most thankful for on this most American of holidays? If I answer that as a citizen, I would say "due process" - the legal system in America that protects individual rights.
What brought the Pilgrims here was the pursuit of religious freedom. Half the first settlers died the first winter, but the survivors gathered enough momentum to hold a harvest feast to pray over by the next fall - the occasion we celebrate.
President Lincoln proposed that Thanksgiving be made a national holiday after the Civil War, to help bind a nation that had almost torn itself apart over the issue of slavery.
Historically, Thanksgiving is tied not so much to the assertion of abundance as it is to milestones in the human conflict between individual dignity and the crush of systems. These systems may be ecclesiastical, governmental, commercial, or social. In fact, it is interesting to observe how often people confuse ethnic custom, religious denomination, political party, and social-class attitudes. Tolerance begins with disentangling the threads of our value systems, by which we judge others and assess their rights.
A litigious society is the price we pay for the value we place on individual rights.
We have an enormously complex civilization today. It is cause for thanks that it functions at all. Think of all the competing interests. These are but a sampling of conflicts from this week's news: A superstore developer, seeking "to give the public what it wants," evades New York City zoning restrictions by sinking the facility 10 feet in the ground, because "basements" are exempt from building code floor-space calculations. An Ionia, Mich., prosecutor decides to take on pathologist Jack Kevorkian for assisting in a suicide. The National Labor Relations Board is to consider new guidelines for how unions can spend workers' dues money. The regional telephone companies want the Federal Communications Commission to require Internet service providers to share the cost of the system. Book publishers are suing former editors, who may have taken their stable of writers or artists with them, over the honoring of contracts. Employers are seeking ways to monitor workers' computer use to keep them from wasting job time surfing the Internet.
In my town of Wellesley, Mass., the issues include the ability of seniors and people of modest means to remain residents as property values escalate. Should river frontage be accessible to the community? There is in Wellesley a fundamental conflict between the "green" interests, which would preserve trees and wetlands for the town's 27,000 inhabitants, and real estate and builder interest that look at the $12 billion in assessed property essentially as a market. The zoning board is caught in the middle, and the yearly town meeting assembly usually leans toward the better-organized commercial bloc.
In a democracy, part of the challenge of due process is getting an issue into an arena where there can be a fair hearing. The media help to do this. But it also important to provide open discussion in schools, families, churches, and businesses, as well as in government bodies and the courts.
A "turkey" in American parlance is often an individual whose rights are dispatched in another's pursuit of abundance. As citizens, maybe we can think about this more broadly.
Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.