Every chunk of time these days seems to need some grand narrative to direct our attention and national conversation. This Thanksgiving it is the battle over TSA’s airport pat downs and body scans. Hot and bothered Americans are calling for travelers to “opt out” of such “invasive searches” and slow down security lines. But this isn’t the real challenge in America today; it is to find a way to "opt in."
I’ve listened closely to the debate over the new TSA procedures. On a personal level, I get it – in October alone, I was in airports every single week. Moreover, I hear the individuals who worry about the personal privacy and national efficacy of this new approach. The fact is I have confidence this situation will be worked out, notwithstanding TSA’s utter clumsiness in how it has rolled out and communicated its new procedures.
But this Thanksgiving’s message about “opting out” is one more symptom of a larger challenge we face today: how we see ourselves in the world and in relationship to one another. At every turn, our culture has seemingly become about “opting out”: opting out of public schools, our obligations to one another, our need to care for the less fortunate, politics. It is about decrying everything that is wrong, blaming leaders, looking out only for ourselves, being self-centered, even greedy at times.
I don’t believe such sentiments and actions actually reflect who we are, or even who we have become. Rather, they have become ingrained reflexes to conditions that seem beyond our control and where no one seems to be listening. Indeed, my own travels tell me that Americans desperately want to be part of something larger than themselves; that they want to join with others to make a difference. We want to come back into community and public life, not opt out.
But grand narratives have a way of taking hold of us and conditioning what we say and do. It happens in our own personal lives. It happens in individual communities. It is happening in our country.
One of the most pressing national challenges we confront today is the need to shift our collective narrative to one of "opting in" – not “opting out.” Rather than merely expending all our energy this Thanksgiving on a narrow set of complaints (still noting that the TSA procedures may need to be changed), now is the time to use our resources to pull each other back into community and public life. At a fundamental level, we must make the choice not to surrender to opting out.
Thus let us stop all the bickering about whom is to blame for past policy mistakes, whom must foot the bill for some new tax, and whom will we seek to defeat in the next election. Our focus must be on where we want to go, and the challenges we must take on to make our way forward. Nor is it the time to wallow in all the things we don’t have; all the things people won’t do; and all the things that can’t work. It is a time to remember all the good and decent and great things we as a nation have done and build on them.
Beyond all the noise, rhetoric and politicking, there is an inescapable fundamental choice we must make today: are you out, or are you in?