Thanksgiving is the time of year when Americans are supposed to take stock and give thanks. The mere fact that we can take stock should make us grateful to be alive and conscious. This Thanksgiving, I am particularly thankful that I don't have to go anywhere by plane.
Over the past three or four decades, air travel has become increasingly unpleasant. Travelers have to put up with stupid, callous, and rude airline employees, dictatorial and self-important security officers, and, worst of all, other travelers. America is now, for the most part, a third world country. I am not referring to the Mexicans, Africans, and Subcontinentals, who have so enriched a culture that had been starving on Shakespeare and Bach, but to our right-down regular white Americans, who have forgotten how to bathe, wash their clothes, eat without dropping hunks of food from their mouths, or talk on a cellphone without shouting obscenities. I am talking about the fastfood fatties who think they have a right to half your seat as well as their own and insist on pulling up the armrest to let their blubber expand over you like the SciFi monster the Blob. It is not their fatitude by itself that makes them intolerable but their insistence upon sharing the burden with others. I have known jolly fat people who do not expect special treatment, but most fatties these days act like members of an "underprivileged" minority.
Air travel was intolerable 20 years ago, but our government, whose officials lie awake at night thinking up new schemes to annoy us for our own good, has instituted the most time-wasting and degrading security measures, short of a strip search, that can be imagined. They say it is for our safety, but they are lying as they always lie. As everyone knows, the Israelis, who face the gravest terrorist threats, have devised a system of profiling that is remarkably successful. I've been through it twice and marveled at the cold courtesy and intelligence of the questioners. But, says Ms Napolitano and her crew, such procedures would have to include ethnic profiling. Indeed, Pakistani and Saudi young men would be treated more rigorously than Swedish-American grandmothers and their Girl Scout granddaughters. But, say the terrorizing anti-terrorists, we have to be afraid of "homegrown terrorists." How many terrorist attempts have been made by American born white women and children? How many American-born citizens of any race, unless they have adopted Muslim names or married a Muslim, have been involved in terrorist episodes?
A small dash of common sense would eliminate most of the pointless and humiliating security procedures that give TSA flunkeys their daily thrills. (One of them told a reporter: I don't enjoy this, I'm a professional. Right, a professional who has to work for TSA, groping other people's genitals.) But, if common sense, especially common sense about race, ethnicity, and religion were an option, we might be living in a free country, which we most definitely do not. Diversity and liberty are as incompatible as liberty and equality.
You may be thinking that your government has made air travel as unbearable as it can be, but you would not have taken into account the Jerk factor. Science has proved that wherever three Americans are gathered together, one will turn out to be a complete Jerk, and, if you give them the almost infinite opportunities to congregate provided by the Internet, the percentage goes up. More than one group of Internet morons have been advising travelers to opt out of the body scans, which produce to a blobby black and white negative photo. It is these self-appointed guardians of liberty who have tricked some people into choosing the alternative, which is, of course, the sexual assaults that are being perpetrated by TSA screeners.
This disastrously bad advice was bad enough, but today some travelers are determined to disrupt the system by opting out and playing various games with the screeners. Yes, that will fix them. Those TSA employees might have to be paid overtime, as thousands of passengers--soldiers and students going home, families going to see grandparents--have their lives interrupted by would be comic-book avengers who have spent their lives watching TV and grazing the Internet--browsing, which suggests some measure of selectivity, is too positive a term. The technical word for all these people is: Jerk.
A Jerk is not simply a fool. A Jerk is someone so absorbed in his own sense of self-importance that he does not care what happens to anyone else. He is in a hurry, so he has to cut you off in traffic or pass in a no-passing zone. He gets bored easily so he has to push past other passengers to be the first off the plane. Since rules are made for other people, he travels with lots of luggage and shopping bags and fills up the overhead bins. Unable to endure a moment of quiet, he immediately turns on his iPod or video game and blasts the headphones so loud they can be heard 10 feet away. Now he wants to ruin your Thanksgiving in the name of freedom.
There is no more dangerous delusion than the persistent American delusion that we live in a free country. "If we only can rouse the good hearts and common sense of our people, we can take this country back again." Such people do exist, but most of them have "opted out" of politics. They are too busy leading their own lives to have much time or energy for busybodying into yours. They accept the fact that our government is tyrannical because they know it is simply a reflection of the servile populace. They fully understand that a nation of sports fans, mall shoppers, and petition signers will never possess the moral freedom required of a people that can achieve political liberty. Above all, they want to be protected from the Jerks, whether on the right or left, who try to use the rest of us as cannon fodder for their pointless campaigns. They understand all too well that the average middle class Americans they meet in airports and restaurants--the goodhearted people we are going to save America for--are, if not complete Jerks, well on their way to perfection.
Liberty is not a natural human condition. It is a precious art form that must be cultivated by people with moral discipline. A nation of Jerks cannot be free, and every attempt they make to recover their freedom will not only provoke more oppression, but it will also subject them to a more degrading form of slavery, the moral and spiritual slavery of the slave who thinks himself free.
When Julius Caesar was establishing his dictatorship in Rome, he seized the national treasures housed in the Temple of Saturn. When a tribune tried to stop him, Caesar rebuked the delusional republican. The poet Lucan, two generations later, thought it odd that in the ruin of their liberties the senators should still care so much about money. As he tells the story, the tribune's friend and colleague warned him against his folly with the memorable lines:
"Libertas" inquit "populi, quem regna coercerent/ Libertate perit; cuius servaveris umbram Si, quidquid iubeare, velis.
When a people is oppressed by tyranny, it perishes by its own liberty. You would preserve the ghost of liberty, if you are willing to do whatever you are ordered.
If I am correctly reading the sense, the Stoic Lucan--who was condemned to death for conspiring against Nero--is pointing out that compliance with a dictator's commands is not wrong so long as the action is not inherently immoral and there is no alternative. "Loss of money [or in our case, convenience and privacy] touches nations that are protected by their own laws; but the poverty of slaves is felt by the master (who has to take care of them) and not by the slaves themselves.
This is a hard saying for self-deluded Americans to accept. They want to raise Hell about 911 or wave their teabags or ogle Sarah Palin on TV. Persisting in their delusion of freedom, they destroy any real freedom they might still enjoy and in behaving like the Jerks they have become--whether by blocking traffic or shouting down a speaker--they degrade what little is left of our civilization.
"Then what's your alternative, wise guy?" Tomorrow, eat well, drink deep, and enjoy the company of the family and friends who gather in your house, and if your nephew or brother-in-law wants to turn on the game, encourage him with good grace to watch it in the other room.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.