Thanksgiving isn't about turkey, but building a better America

The real point of Thanksgiving often gets lost in the dinners and football games. Photo: Associated Press / NASA

OCALA, Fla., November 28, 2013 — Thanksgiving is here again. This year, why not pay less mind to the turkey and focus on what really matters: the once and future America.

One story illustrates the heights to which our country’s aspirations have soared. It also points out how far short we’ve fallen of meeting them.

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For millions of Americans, Neil Armstrong personified an grand, yet tantalizingly possible dream: the exploration and settlement of outer space.

When he set foot on the moon in 1969, the first man in history to do so, we were on the threshhold of a new frontier, a new age of exploration. The United States had indisputably won the space race, and nothing stood in its way of reaching for the stars.

If the average person were asked then whether this country would have a lunar colony — and perhaps even a profitable space tourism industry — by the year 2013, the answer would have been an emphatic “yes.”

If only this were in the cards.

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Armstrong’s death last year was a tremendous loss for our nation. Not only was he a brave and modest man, he was a symbol of American ingenuity, technological competence, and that fabled brand of all-American optimism.

At the time of the moon landing, the United States was, as it is now, caught in an era of social and political strife. Despite this, we were unified in that brief, triumphant moment when Armstrong took his “one small step.”

Could the nation unite that way today? Could we pull off such a bravura feat of bravery, ingenuity, and unbridled self-confidence? Could a huge technological challenge and the spirit of adventure combine to capture the national imagination as Apollo did? 

Apparently not. 

We dissolved the shuttle fleet with barely any notice, and the elimination of funding for a Mars mission from NASA’s budget was met with a collective yawn. Manned space exploration has lost its grip on the national imagination, replaced by — nothing.

Immensely sad as this is, it is well in tune with modern society’s tendency to champion mediocrity. Since we live in an age of picking up rocks from the ground rather than reaching for the stars, what else can be expected?

In the 1960s, riven as it was by strife, America was a nation on the move. It boasted public intellectuals such as William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, leaders who dreamed big like Nelson Rockefeller and Eugene McCarthy, and more importantly, a citizenry with soaring hopes and confidence in the future.

Today, America is a country on the move, but its movement is downhill, and at an alarming speed. 

We’ve traded Buckley and Vidal for Rush Limbaugh and Martin Bashir. Ted Cruz and Debbie Wasserman Schultz squabble where titans like LBJ, Rockefeller, and even the flawed Richard Nixon once dominated the stage and battled for a nation’s soul with huge ideas. Worst of all, the American people are too tired or radicalized to care about the bigger picture. We no longer care about ideas and policies; we care only about politics.

Like our pundits and politicians, we argue over the tactics of our decline rather than strategize for a better future.

The Greatest Generation, of which Neil Armstrong was such a glorious exemplar, remains a societal phenomenon without parallel. Succeeding generations have been unworthy heirs of the former’s accomplishments. Indeed, these have preferred to devour what was left to them and treat it as spoils, rather than a cherished legacy to build on.

So, this Thanksgiving, let us remember the America that was, and commit ourselves to the America that can be again. We should be thankful that our nation has a history so phenomenal. May our past achievements serve as a blueprint for building a brighter tomorrow.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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