Thursday, November 24, 2011

Drawing Strength from an American Tradition

Today is Thanksgiving in America.  Rather than the usual posting on the AEC, I provide a link to an op-ed article published in the Straits Times today.  An excerpt is below:

As the "American" season in Asia, which began with the APEC summit in Honolulu, closes with the end of U.S. President Obama's visit to the region, readers are bombarded with analyses focused on the diplomatic and economic impact of America's so-called "pivot" towards the region.  Yet the end of this season also coincides with that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, which perhaps more than any other US holiday, is an expression of American exceptionalism, the belief that America is a unique country with a special mission in the world. This week’s Thanksgiving holiday is an appropriate prism to consider how Asia interacts the other aspect of American influence in the region, that of its culture. 

Unlike other American holidays such Valentine's Day and Halloween, Thanksgiving offers no commercial opportunities to exploit overseas.  Unlike other holidays devoted to the
American state, such as Independence Day or Memorial Day, the underlying concept of Thanksgiving, of giving thanks, is not limited to America by definition. Thus, the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday remains sui generis, an American holiday that remains purely American for reasons beyond mere nationality.

In my view, Thanksgiving represents the ultimate expression of American culture’s uniqueness. The roots of Thanksgiving are in the celebratory feast of the Pilgrims in the Massachusetts colony, during the earliest days of America’s founding. They celebrated having survived the voyage across the Atlantic, the harsh winter, and the dread illnesses that befell them. These survivors had made personal choices, most for religious reasons, some to seek fortune, others for their own reasons; however, all had voluntarily chosen to make a new life in a new world, a choice made by individuals, not by the state.

The Pilgrims thus represented the core nature of America. The American people, for the most part, are a self-selected people.  There is no "typical American" now.  Based on their own choices or those of their ancestors, Americans can be of any race, religion or ethnicity.   More than any other country then, Americans are defined by the belief system they internalize within themselves, and not by any particular national attributes which have been externalized.

This sense of individualism remains the most attractive attribute of America to Americans and non-Americans alike.  Self-identification and re-invention based on individual considerations are the aspects of American culture most copied in Asia, where individualism is less favored.   Individualism seeps through American media, culture, business and politics.  This diversity can be both fascinating and frustrating, and is appealing to many.

Yet unbridled individualism is a caricature, which if adopted without limits, results in the worst abuses. Selfish disregard of greater society is what motivates factory owners to put melamine in milk or company officials to force their workers to gamble in casinos.  

Such destructive behavior comes from incorporating a superficial understanding of the American way of life without understanding its full context.  A further discussion of Thanksgiving provides such context.

More than any other American holiday, Americans spend Thanksgiving with their families.  They rush through airports and highways on Wednesday to get home. They spend Thanksgiving cooking, eating and watching football.  They spend the next day, “Black Friday,”  shopping for Christmas presents.  Americans may each have different variations of Thanksgiving – I remember my mother trying to cook soya roasted turkey, and we still cook turkey rice porridge – but the holiday remains centered around the family.

The holiday also originated as an informal, regional celebration.  Hence it is a “bottom-up” institution, adopted originally by families celebrating the fall harvest and commemorating the efforts of the early settlers.   However, it was the state, the U.S. federal government, that gave it a uniform day.  President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, but he also created Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Thus, Thanksgiving, like American society in general, is the product of a balancing of individual, family and the state.  That balancing is done by the people of every country.  Ultimately, each country must strike its own balance and continually struggle to maintain that balance.  In this way, America is exceptional in its weighting towards the individual, but it maintains a balance, just as Singapore has successfully managed to achieve its own balance.  Yet the struggle to maintain that balance in a constantly changing world remains a difficult but necessary proposition.

This will be my fifteenth Thanksgiving in Singapore.  When I sit down with my own family for Thanksgiving dinner,  our celebration will blend American, Singaporean, Chinese and other traditions.   I will be thankful for an America that provided educational and social opportunities unavailable elsewhere.  I will be thankful for a Singapore that provides a secure environment to raise our family and earn a living.    I will be thankful for the difficult choices made, and continue to be made that allow us to enjoy our way of life. 

Perhaps Thanksgiving will remain a uniquely American holiday.  However, as we come to the end of a difficult year, we can all take a moment to reflect and  give thanks for our personal and national condition.  Then we can gather our strength for the tasks ahead.

We’ll resume AEC comments after the holiday (there was a lot from the summits!). Happy Thanksgiving!