The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero insisted that gratitude was “the parent of all the other virtues.”
Cicero did not define gratitude as Mafia-like loyalty or mutual back-scratching. He was not referring to a pop socialism, where all supposedly owe their successes to the government.
Instead, gratitude is proof of humility and offers perspective. It is an appreciation for others, often now dead, who have helped to make us what we are. Without it, we are narcissists and self-absorbed amnesiacs.
Unfortunately, our modern “me” generation has forgotten gratitude and replaced it with the art of victimization. Contemporary Americans prefer blaming others – parents, ancestors, their country, the world in general – for their own unhappiness while patting themselves on the back for anything that goes well.
Nowhere is the death of gratitude more acute than at our elite universities.
Today’s students hunt for micro-aggressions, slights that register only on their hypersensitive Richter scales of victimization. They pout over mean Halloween costumes, inauthentic ethnic food or politically incorrect literature assignments. They are angry even at mute statues and century-old names chiseled on the arches of their ivy-covered halls.
We rarely hear students thank their parents, their universities or the government for forking over an average of more than $30,000 per year to excuse them from the American rat race. An expensive education has become more a birthright than a gift from others.
Today’s average student is eager to find something offensive. Rarely does he or she wonder who built the chic resident halls, who designed the upscale student union, or who donated to the college endowment to subsidize the numerous free things on campus.
Anonymous, long-dead benefactors are reduced to politically incorrect losers of the past who lacked today’s affluent 18-year-old’s sophisticated view of the world and supposedly unique morality. But could today’s student activists on beatific campuses have survived a covered wagon trip through the Utah desert, or a 19th-century Appalachian coal mine or a mission with a B-17 crew over Schweinfurt, Germany?
Many Americans oppose illegal immigration and want to slow down legal immigration not because the most welcoming nation in the world is suddenly xenophobic, nativist or racist, as cheaply alleged. Too often, immigrants assume that America owes them rather than they owe America – sort of like an uninvited guest moving into the house of the host and berating him over the menu and accommodations.
In Oregon, illegal immigrants are suing the state because their hosts voted not to extend driver’s licenses to those who broke immigration law. In Missouri, immigrants without legal immigration status are suing the state university, demanding lower tuition. In Arizona, undocumented immigrants successfully sued a rancher who would not let them trespass through his property as they unlawfully entered the United States.
That ungracious attitude was emblemized during a 2011 soccer match at the Rose Bowl between the U.S. and Mexico. The partisan Mexican crowd booed the American team and the U.S. flag. Did the booing fans empathize more with the country they had rejected than the country they adopted?
Instead of reciting a litany of American shortcomings or listing demands, just once it would be nice to hear an immigrant spokesman say something like, “We want to stay in this country and not go home because America is wonderful, and treats people with a respect and dignity that we have never experienced before.”
After the lethal Boston Marathon bombings and the San Bernardino terrorist attack, the immigrant parents of the perpetrators showed little gratitude to their adopted America.
Neither the mother of Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev nor the father of San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook seemed very grateful to their adopted home for taking them in and offering a life preferable to that back in Chechnya or Pakistan, respectively. Nor had they ever warned authorities about the extremist tendencies of their children.
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama has been more willing to cite the shortcomings of his country than to remind foreign nations of American singularity.
Obama’s so-called apology tour, his Cairo speech and his dismissals of American exceptionalism suggest that the president is not quite sure why America is the richest, freest and most powerful nation in the world – although he certainly takes for granted its pre-eminent position and the perks and influence that go along with it as president.
Must our ancestors be reduced to villains of the past who do not fit our model of political correctness? Or were they just folks who had it far rougher than we citizens of the 21st century, and sacrificed their all so that we would not have to endure everything they did?
Maybe in this holiday season the current generation of Americans occasionally could thank them. Such displays of gratitude, as Cicero suggested, might birth other virtues in us as well – such as humility.
Victor Davis Hanson of Selma is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.” You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.