For as long as any of us can recall, American Jews have celebrated Thanksgiving out of a deep sense of gratitude to God for any number of different things that define our lives in this place: the great prosperity of this land in which we share; the security provided for us and for all by our matchless and supremely powerful military; the freedoms guaranteed to all by a Bill of Rights that basically defines the American ethos in terms of the autonomy of the individual; the specific kind of participatory democracy that grants each of us a voice to raise and a ballot to cast; the freedom to embrace a minority faith—or any faith—without fear, reticence, or nervousness about what others may or may not think; and the inner satisfaction that comes from being part of a nation that self-defines in terms of its mission to do good in the world and to combat tyranny, oppression, and demagoguery wherever such baleful things manage to take root among the peoples of the world.None of any of the above strikes me as being anything other than fully true, yet I can’t stop reading op-ed pieces and blog postings that posit that things have somehow changed, that the world now is not as it even just recently was, that it is the past and all its glories that shine bright now rather than the unknown—and unknowable—future, and that every one of the reasons listed above for us American Jews to join our fellow citizens in feeling deeply grateful for our presence in this place could just as reasonably be deemed illusory as fully real. And I hear those sentiments, interestingly enough, coming from people on both ends of the political spectrum as well as from all those self-situated just to the right or left of center. Nor are American Jews alone in their ill ease: if there is one thing vast swaths of our American nation seem able to agree upon, it’s that the age of great leadership belongs to history and that it is thus our destiny for the foreseeable future to be led by people whose sole claim to serve as our nation’s leaders is that they somehow managed to get themselves elected to public office. No one seems to dispute the fact that this is not at all a healthy thing for the republic. But expressing regret is not at all the same thing as formulating a specific plan to address the situation as it has evolved to date.
To keep this creeping malaise from interfering in an untoward manner as we prepare to celebrate our nation’s best holiday, I suggest we take the long view.Frederic E. Church was a nineteenth century man, born in 1826 when John Quincy Adams was in the White House and dead on the 7th of April in 1900 as a new century dawned. He was also one of America’s greatest landscape painters, a member of the so-called Hudson River School and, in his day, one of the most celebrated artists alive. I mention him today, however, not to recall the larger impact of his oeuvre, but to tell you about one single one of his paintings, the one called “The Icebergs.”
As you can see, the picture (currently owned by the Dallas Museum of Art) is magnificent. But what made it famous in its day was specifically the way in which it was taken by many to capture the surge of self-confidence that characterized America’s sense of its own destiny at the end of the nineteenth century. One author, Jörn Münkner, characterized the painting’s appeal in this passage composed when the painting was put on exhibition at Georgetown University:
Frederik E. Church's "The Icebergs" pictured the Alpha and Omega of time and tide. It reflected the mid-19th century American world-view that was characterized by the belief in a “Manifest Destiny” according to which the United States…was the New Israel that had been prepared for by the divinity. 1861 saw the U.S. reigning from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Nature was regarded as holy and science as sanctified. The belief in the American Garden Eden whose very fortunes were guided by the Creator emanated out of the scientifically correct “The Icebergs.” It was the display of the rare and intoxicating American amalgam of science, religion, and nationalism. The relationship of the actual and the real that was concealed in the painting revealed the idea/fact that scientific thinking in America was shaped by a deep religious faith. Providence guided the scholarly painter's hand.
I find those words somehow inspiring and chilling at the same time, but I see what the author means: even after all this time, the painting hasn’t really lost its ability to suggest the majesty of nature or its timelessness. I get a bit lost on my way from that thought to the notion of manifest destiny inspiring America’s nineteenth-century rise to greatness (and, yes, the whole America as the new Israel is beyond peculiar, as surely also is the fact that the artist was thinking so expansively about American destiny on the eve of what in 1861 would still have been unimaginable carnage), yet I really can see the strength, the power, and the sense of ineluctable kismet mirrored in the majestic icebergs in the picture…and so finding in them a symbol both of America’s uniqueness and of its remarkable destiny is not as big a stretch as I thought at first it would be.But other nineteenth-century types saw different things in the image of these gigantic icebergs afloat in an endless sea.
Edward Bellamy, once one of America’s most famous authors, has been almost completely forgotten. Yet his 1888 book, Looking Backward, was the third most popular American novel of nineteenth century, exceeded in fiction sales only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. An early utopian novel, the book tells the story of one Julian West, a young man from Boston who goes to bed one night in 1887 and somehow manages only to wake up from his sleep in the year 2000. Some of the author’s predictions are uncannily correct—he depicts West as enjoying the almost instant delivery of goods ordered without having to visit any actual stores—while other things West finds in 2000, like a universal retirement age of 45, have not turned out quite as the author imagined they might. But it is the author’s postscript to his own work I want to cite here, as he imagines America in the future and uses his own version of the iceberg symbol to express his dismay. Almost definitely thinking of Church’s painting and the expansive optimism it inspired, he wrote as follows:
As an iceberg, floating southward from the frozen North, is gradually undermined by warmer seas, and, become at least unstable, churns the sea to yeast for miles around by the mighty rockings that portend its overturn, so the barbaric industrial and social system, which has come down to us from savage antiquity, undermined by the modern humane spirit, riddled by the criticism of economic science, is shaking the world with convulsions that presage its collapse.
This line of thinking I also understand: for all it appears mighty and invincible as it rises from the sea, icebergs are, after all, just so much frozen water. They melt as they float into warmer waters than can sustain them, which may (or may not) dramatically affect the ocean into which they dissolve but cannot affect the iceberg itself once it disappears into the sea and is no more.So one image and two distinct interpretations. Of course, both are right. An inert, uncomprehending iceberg was powerful enough to sink the most sophisticated ocean liner of its day in 1912. And the semi-famous iceberg rather prosaically named B-15, which broke away from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf in 2000, is about to melt into the South Atlantic Ocean. At 3,200 square nautical miles, B-15 is larger than the island of Jamaica. Yet its doom was sealed not by weapons of mass destruction or acts of God, but by the sea’s slightly too-warm water. (To read more, click here.) From this we learn that strength and weakness are not as unrelated as their antithetical nature makes them at first appear. Indeed, they are each other’s twins…and from that thought I draw the lesson I wish to offer to my readers for Thanksgiving Day in the Age of Anxiety.
Our nation is currently divided down into people who see America’s great and mighty presence in the world pointing to a remarkable destiny framed by our nation’s ongoing commitment to the foundational principles upon which the republic was founded and still rests. Such people look at Church’s painting and are heartened by what they see because solid, powerful, majestic icebergs afloat in the sea remind them of our nation, its strong moral underpinnings, its commitment to (the American version of) tikkun olam, and its invincible military. This group includes members who vote red and who vote blue, but others see our nation coming apart at the seams, a country divided down into warring factions in which personal liberty is increasingly defined in terms of the sensitivities of the majority and in which justice is meted out entirely differently to people of different races and social strata. Such people look at Church’s painting and hear Bellamy’s warning that even giant icebergs that look stable and impregnable can be undermined by the gentle, unarmed presence of a warm current in the sea. Nothing lasts forever. Every Achilles has his heel. No garden thrives because it was once watered.So who is right? I propose we give the last word to Bellamy himself, whose afterword to his own novel (which I am currently reading for the first time) closes with these words: “All thoughtful men agree,” he writes, “that the present aspect of society is portentous of great changes. The only question is whether they will be for the better or the worse. Those who believe in man’s essential nobleness lean to the former view, those who believe in his essential baseness to the latter. For my part, I hold to the former opinion. Looking Back was written in the belief that our Golden Age lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away. Our children will surely see it, and we too who are already men and women, if we deserve it by our faith and by our works.”
Despite it all, that’s what I think too! And I offer that thought—part prayer, part wish, part hope—to you all on this Thanksgiving Day, a day on which all Americans are united by the desire to recognize the good in ourselves and our nation, and to be grateful for the potential to do good in the world that derives directly from that noble sense of what it means to be an American.