Thanksgiving Statement from Robert P. George, Director of the James Madison Program

November 25, 2021

Dear James Madison Program Undergraduate Fellows:

A happy Thanksgiving to you!

Although days of Thanksgiving in our country have been observed going all the way back to the presidency of George Washington, the national holiday we celebrate today was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863—in the very midst of the Civil War. In his proclamation, Lincoln observed that “no human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out” the bountiful blessings which Americans enjoy. “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

To me, these words ring as true today as surely they rang to those Americans to whom the Great Emancipator directed them 158 years ago.

There are still abundant national blessings … and national sins … and divine mercy. And there is national division.

On this Thanksgiving Day we are a polarized nation and too many Americans are stuck in silos. Half the country, it seems, gets its information and analysis exclusively from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and American Greatness; the other half, from MSNBC or CNN, the New York Times, and the Nation. In their respective silos, people are constantly told they are right—reinforced in what they happen to believe—and taught to regard their fellow citizens who disagree as villains … and therefore enemies.

In recent days, our divisions have been stoked by high profile criminal cases. Viewed from the silos, the meanings of these cases seem obvious, and anyone who sees them differently must be an “ignoramus,” a “bigot,” an “out-of-touch elitist,” a “liar,” a “manipulator”—in short, a fool or a fraud. An example is the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. Was it a travesty of justice, which seems obvious to some Americans? Or was it the essence of justice itself, which seems equally obvious to others? Was Rittenhouse a “vigilante” and a “white supremacist”? Or was he a hero who placed himself at risk to defend the lives and property of innocent people from rioters and vandals?

Or could it be that the situation is not quite as black and white, as open and shut, as people in either camp suppose?

I have my own opinions on these matters. But it is not my role as Director of the James Madison Program or as a professor at Princeton University to try to persuade you that my opinions are the ones you should adopt. It is not the job of any professor, or of any unit of the University, or the University itself to tell you what to think. Our role in your lives is to encourage and empower you to think deeply, to think critically, and to think for yourselves about important issues, such as those dividing our nation today.

On the major issues we face, reasonable people of goodwill are not all of one mind. To decide where you should stand, I urge you to avoid the silos and listen attentively to what intelligent voices on the competing sides are saying. To make up one’s mind, however tentatively, one needs to seek out and thoughtfully consider the most reliable information and the best arguments offered in support of the various positions. To allow oneself to be constantly reinforced in what one already believes is to court becoming a mere partisan, a dogmatist, an ideologue.

So please stay out of the silos. Even in personal relationships, make sure you are not surrounding yourself with people who can be counted on to tell you you’re right. If you don’t have a friend who sees things differently than you do, please try to make one.

This is not to discourage you from being people of conviction—people who stand up for their beliefs, who condemn what they believe is wrong and defend what they think is right. It is rather to encourage you genuinely to think for yourself and to engage others in a truth-seeking spirit, one that does not presuppose one’s own infallibility. There is no incompatibility between being a person of conviction and practicing the virtue of intellectual humility. Even people of conviction can acknowledge that they may have things to learn from people with whom they disagree. And no one ever learned from someone while shouting at him or shunning her.

I’ve detained you long enough on this Thanksgiving Day. I hope you are enjoying it with friends and family. All of us as Americans—and as Princetonians—have much for which to be thankful today—including the precious freedoms to think for ourselves and speak our minds.

Robert P. George