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E.J. Dionne Jr.

The Politics of Gratitude

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page A39

Years ago someone introduced me to the saying: "God looks out for fools and Democrats."

Ever since, I have felt well protected by the Almighty on both counts. But in truth, all of us -- even geniuses and Republicans -- need help now and again. We receive much more of it than we acknowledge. We are deceiving ourselves if we pretend that we always rely on our own resources. That is why gratitude is an underrated virtue.

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Gratitude gets a bad rap because it implies dependency and seems like a soft, Hallmark Thanksgiving sentiment. But truth can be found even in Hallmark cards, and gratitude is a rigorous disposition, morally and intellectually demanding.

Consider the revered idea of the "self-made man," or, as we would now render it, the "self-made person." I have known and admired people who fall into that category, including my late uncle and godfather, who had to drop out of school in the sixth grade and then worked very hard and creatively to make a huge success of himself in the baking business.

It does no disrespect to him or to all others like him to suggest that there is, in fact, no such thing as a purely self-made person. There's the obvious: that we are brought into the world and (usually) reared by our parents. Having decent, caring parents is surely one of the great gifts life offers -- and none of us can count that as an achievement we had anything to do with.

We also enter the world in a particular place. It's easier to make a go of it in the U.S.A. than in, say, Chad. Americans benefit from laws, customs and traditions that promote prosperity. We go to schools that others (usually taxpayers) have built. Yes, even geniuses and Republicans often benefit from the many things that the community does. How many Americans have received scholarships and loans to go to college? How many of us have benefited from personal networks built around houses of worship and civic organizations? More specifically: How many businesses received loans from the Small Business Administration? How many farmers have received subsidies?

There is thus a politics of gratitude, which is a politics of humility. Gratitude suggests that no matter how proud we are of our own accomplishments, we know they would have been impossible without help from others. The politics of gratitude is also a politics of reciprocity and generosity. Because we acknowledge the help we have received, we are more ready, individually and collectively, to render help to others.

Ah, I can hear some readers groaning, Isn't this all just an elaborate disguise for bleeding-heart liberalism? Perhaps so, but it is a liberalism rooted in profoundly conservative inclinations. It happens that one of the finest books on the subject at hand was written not by some Marxist but by the godfather of modern conservatism: William F. Buckley Jr.

A little over a decade ago, Buckley published "Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country." He argued that there is much for which we should give thanks, beginning with the basics. "Even if we never need the help of the courts, or of the policeman, or of the Bill of Rights," he wrote, "that they are there for us in the event of need distinguishes our society from others. To alert us to their presence, however dormant in our own lives, tends to ensure their survival."

"The conservative movement perceives connections between the individual and the community beyond those that relate either to the state or to the marketplace," Buckley insisted. And he asserted that "participation in the community should take more active form than merely paying taxes, buying and selling in the marketplace, and voting."

Buckley's book was a case for national service. It is a concept whose time has not only come -- it never went away. Democrats, in their post-election gloom, are casting about for new ideas that would demonstrate their "moral values." The old idea of the GI Bill may yet be the best new idea around, emphasizing as it does both the obligation to serve and the proven capacity of government to expand social mobility through educational opportunities and homeownership.

The politics of gratitude offers an alternative to both dependency and selfishness. I can't know exactly where God would stand on this question, but Democrats truly would be fools not to think about its possibilities. And just imagine: Bill Buckley, who helped give birth to the modern conservative movement, might someday win praise for providing the core idea behind a resurgent liberalism.


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