In the late 1970s I found myself in London on the Fourth of July. I was a member of a boys‚?? chorus that was touring the United Kingdom, and the BBC aired a 30-minute special about our visit. We sang a short set and were interviewed on topics of interest to our British pre-teen peers. Things were going fine until the host suddenly turned to me and asked, ‚??Hey, isn‚??t it America‚??s birthday?¬† Tell me why that‚??s a big deal to you?‚?Ě I was initially stunned at this rather ridiculous question, but then recovered to respond, ‚??Um, because we didn‚??t like your King. And that‚??s the day when we decided to start kicking your butt over it!‚?Ě
I was clearly never destined for a career with the State Department.
Traveling abroad during an American holiday is generally a forgettable experience. Missing Labor, Columbus, Veterans‚??, Memorial, or President‚??s Days means little while walking the Champs Elysees, crossing Tiananmen Square, or just hanging out in Ottawa with a Mountie. And if you really hate missing fireworks over the Mall or the local parade with the Shriners‚?? funny cars, you can always find a U.S. consulate or embassy to get your July Fourth barbecue-and-beer fix.
But there is one U.S. holiday when it does feel strange to be overseas‚??Thanksgiving, that distinctly American celebration of friends, food, family, and our nation‚??s history and tradition. Several times I‚??ve found myself across the Pond on the fourth Thursday in November. Trying to find turkey and cranberry sauce in the shadow of the Il Duomo di Firenze and Big Ben are ‚?¶ erm, interesting experiences. But so are the lingering reminiscences of feeling somehow disconnected.
We libertarians do not always display a strong sense of nationalistic pride. That‚??s why many Conservatives hold us at arm‚??s length. And that‚??s OK; I understand where they‚??re coming from. But that doesn‚??t mean our rabid individualism somehow trumps the idea of connectedness. Quite the contrary. We fully understand that spontaneous order and property rights create a powerful bond of mutual reliance and collective benefit, that voluntary exchange produces far more societal value than does government force. When we pursue our self-interest, we never do so in a vacuum. We may not always like each other. But we do need each other.
And when it comes to freedom and liberty, our passion is a bond that creates an epic alliance.
Several weeks ago I sat with friends and colleagues in lower Manhattan celebrating the accomplishments of the Atlas Network. Dedicated to strengthening the worldwide freedom movement, Atlas connects a global network of 400 free-market organizations in over 80 countries, providing them resources and ideas they can use to promote the cause of economic and personal liberty in their respective regions.
The Atlas Freedom Dinner capped two days of practical discussions on how to overcome the challenges of fostering indigenous liberty activists and thinkers in countries that do not always respect basic concepts like the rule of law, free markets, or protection of individual expression. The dinner on the other hand, was a time for some important storytelling.
The evening began with a toast from Yeonmi Park, a 21-year-old North Korean who escaped her country in 2007 and now assists other refugees and contributes to her homeland‚??s nascent underground economy. Atlas awarded a $100,000 prize to a fledgling Lithuanian think tank that developed a ranking of municipal government performance based on freedom of choice, private property rights, free enterprise, efficient use of public resources, and transparent and accountable governance.
Capping off the celebration, Garry Kasparov, fierce Vladimir Putin critic (and one hell of a chess player), took to the podium to remind the hundreds gathered that no country corners the market on human dignity and freedom. Powerful stuff.
The next day, it was time to go home, and back to the grind of the D.C. legislative sausage factory. But listening to the stories at the Atlas event put it all in perspective.
Last week Congress returned to get down to lame-duck business. There were, and there may still be, votes on major policy changes. There may even be a (temporary) budget. But much of it will focus on the policy weeds, or be positioned to earn political brownie points in the new January Congress. In other words, here we go again.
Meanwhile, small groups of activists and thinkers around the world are planting their freedom flags and dealing with challenges we largely overcame long ago. This Thanksgiving, that matters.
I, like many, have family scattered like a diaspora. This Thanksgiving Thursday I will be with some of them. We will eat. We will drink wine and whisky. We will laugh. We will make fun of one another and probably argue over something. It is Thanksgiving Day, after all.
But it‚??ll be just another Thursday for those heading back from that New York gathering as they scatter back to Austria, London, Berlin, Hong Kong, Paris, Aix-en-Provence, and Edinburgh. And back to Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, the edge of North Korea and the Ukraine.
As an American, on this Thursday, that peculiarly unique day, I will think of them and be thankful for all they do.