Thanksgiving Essay II: In Praise of Opportunity (November 24, 2007)
An astute reader recently reminded me of the aphorism attributed to General Douglas MacArthur: "There is no security on this Earth; there is only opportunity."
Another reader, who managed to extricate himself some years ago from an oppressive, dictatorial regime and make his way to the U.S., made this comment which I have been pondering at length over this long holiday weekend:
We live a very simple and happy life. It is amazing to see how most Americans do not have a clue of the unlimited opportunities we all have here. Most people want "instant gratification" and they are not willing to sacrifice to get what they want, instead they choose to live above their means and go into debt for the rest of their lives.This reminded me most powerfully that we who have been born in a land of opportunity cannot fully appreciate this freedom in the same way as someone who comes to this liberty from a repressive, highly restrictive nation.
In a time of crushing debt levels and rampant borrowing at all levels of our society-- individual, business and government--it is self-evident that instant gratification via debt has replaced saving and sacrifice.
It is a cliche that America has become a culture of victimization and entitlement, but there is certainly ample evidence to support the cliche: Everywhere you turn, someone is demanding "their fair share" of what are inevitably tax revenues, skimmed from the productive sectors of the economy.
"Opportunity" has been transformed into a demand for taxpayer-funded benefits: "education opportunity" doesn't mean a free library, but a fully funded university education. Politicians are busy passing out what are essentially gifts for "housing opportunities" and various business tax-shelters sold as "increasing employment opportunities."
This reader reminds us that opportunity is not a veiled demand for entitlements, favors, gifts and tax breaks: it is the freedom to pursue happiness in whatever form the individual chooses. Failure is an option; in fact, many entrepreneurs credit failure with teaching them far more than easy success.
Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to think, too, of everything else we take for granted. Such a rich meal was once only prepared once or twice a year, because it was unaffordable on a weekly basis. Now, we can eat rich (and generally unhealthy) food every day of the week, and citizens now whine that greasy fast food is "cheaper" than "real food." Or is the grimmer reality that junk food provides instant gratification and is easier than actually preparing real food?
There is a great hue and cry about immigration in this country, and yes, we must draw a strict line between illegal and legal immigration. But we must also look at how we have made legal immigration so difficult and restrictive that we are denying ourselves the untold benefits of bright, hardworking young people.
I am grateful that people are still willing to put up with the insanely bureaucratic, costly and nonsensical immigration / "Homeland Security" bramble to become residents and citizens of the U.S. At our Thanksgiving table of eleven friends, family and guests, the language spoken was of course English; but the native languages of the celebrants included Telugu (a major language of India), Italian, Cantonese (Chinese) and Japanese.
One of the guests is here working on post-doctoral research on bacteria, and perhaps her work will some day result in a life-saving biological innovation. Was it easy for her to get permission to come to the U.S.? Absolutely not. If you knew what non-U.S. academics have to put up with just to do graduate-level work here, you would be appalled, and would wonder (as I do) why anyone bothers.
This nation's immigrants enrich us all, perhaps most importantly by reminding us that opportunity is another word for individual freedom, not a thinly veiled demand for cash entitlements.
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