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Gratitude for What We Have

Much of the criticism of the criminal justice system takes root in the belief that America is a fundamentally flawed country  --  racist, classist, beset with the inequities of capitalism and callous (or, worse, cruel) to those who suffer from them. This belief suffuses criminal defense, which scarcely ever anymore contests whether the accused did it, and concentrates instead on the poisonous social forces that led him to do it.

A different view of our country was presented last night by Yuval Levin, as he accepted the Bradley Prize at a ceremony at the Kennedy Center.  His talk was not directly about criminal law, but bears repeating as an antidote to the dim view of America I described above.  Mr. Levin said, among other things:

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they're wrong, and that they're not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America's unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom--of ordered liberty--built up over centuries of hard work.

We value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren't fated to happen, and they're not certain to survive. They need us--and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

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