Imagine you are a newcomer to the United States, with no knowledge of the culture. How, over the next week, would you learn to describe Thanksgiving through your observations?
Is it the beginning of the holiday season? Does it usher in a month of frenzied shopping with discounts at retailers? Is it a time when families get together and eat a lot?
If you discover it is a day when people express gratitude for blessings, how would that fit with your impressions of American culture at large? Would an unbiased observer who examines social media posts, American politics, sports or life in general find any sincerity to Thanksgiving rituals?
The holiday may be a few days away, but now is a good time to start thinking about this, especially if your traditions include going around the table, taking turns expressing what you are thankful for.
In doing so, it may help to turn the question in a different direction. Imagine you were living 100 years ago and had just been transported to the present. Would you find reasons to give thanks for how things have changed?
Politicians are great at getting people to imagine a sunnier past when life was better. They seek votes by convincing people things are getting worse and they have solutions. Don’t believe them.
A quick glance at a Salt Lake newspaper from this week in 1917 reveals a world in turmoil. The First World War was in full swing. Front-page stories in the Salt Lake Telegram told of Americans dying in trenches while holding a line against German forces. Other headlines told of street fighting in Moscow as the Bolshevik Revolution struggled to maintain control and establish a regime that would cause untold misery for years.
Almost two years ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed a detailed portrait of American life a century ago. About 80 percent of people rented their homes, compared with about a 60 percent homeownership rate today. Food consumed one-third of a typical person’s budget and was bland by today’s standards.
The typical workplace was a danger zone, about 30 times more dangerous than today. Half of all Americans lived on farms, where they often struggled to survive.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. The differences between today and then can be understood best by the things that didn’t exist in 1917. Health care might have been much cheaper, but antibiotics and other modern medicine didn’t exist. If you were lucky enough to own a piano and have someone in your family who could play, you had some entertainment. Otherwise, there was no radio or TV, and films were in their silent infancy. Only 30 percent of the country owned a telephone.
Go back even 50 years and the headlines scream of the war in Vietnam as well as race riots tearing apart Detroit and Newark. This week in 1967, 2,500 anti-war protesters fought police in New York City.
By almost any measure, life today is better than in the past. That is an aggregate measure, of course. Your mileage may vary. A few years ago, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker published a book explaining that violent behavior is decreasing worldwide, despite mass shootings and other things that dominate the news.
Last year, he told NPR, “I looked at homicide, looked at war, looked at genocide, looked at terrorism. And in all cases, the long-term historical trend, though there are ups and downs and wiggles and spikes, is absolutely downward.”
Indeed, although the national murder rate has inched up the last two years, it is at about the same rate as in 1965.
The amazing thing is so few people seem to believe this.
Many parents know what it’s like to give something to an ungrateful child. What are we when we look back on all this history and still complain?
In one measure things have gotten worse — our level of civility. It’s hard to quantify that, of course, but I’m guessing it would be easy for a visitor to see.
That is something entirely in our own control, and it might warrant a stern lecture from both of our mythical visitors.