It is a well-known fact, often trotted out this time of year, that Ben Franklin thought that the wild turkey, not the bald eagle, should have been America's national bird and placed on the national seal. Granted, this idea comes from a letter he wrote his daughter (and thus not intended for public consumption,) and being the cheekiest and most ironic of the founders, I wonder whether Franklin was really serious about his proposal. Franklin thought eagles to be bullying, weak, and parasitic, and the turkey to be brave and intelligent.
His famous comparison of the birds has been the subject of mirth as far as I can remember. We tend to think of turkeys as rather hapless, raised to be centerpiece of Thanksgiving dinner, not as the symbol of a great nation. Domestic turkeys are indeed dumber than a bag of hammers; my Dad tells me that when his family raised them they would end up drowning themselves if left out in the rain. Wild turkeys, however, are known for their wiliness, smarts, and ability to evade even expert hunters.
At this point in America's history, I think it is more important than ever that Franklin's proposal be followed. Eagles have long been the preferred birds of empires, from the Romans to the Habsburgs to the Romanovs to the Hohenzollerns. Some founders, like Thomas Jefferson, may have welcomed the comparison; he dubbed America "an empire for liberty." After all, the westward expansion he vigorously endorsed was just another form of imperial conquest. Today we face a dire situation, where the American empire has quickly fallen from the "hyperpower" of the immediate aftermath of the Cold War to an imperium in decline, its credit downgraded, standard of living stagnant, and politics hopelessly divided.
As it stands now, I believe the nation is facing a crucial choice, one which it might not be aware that it must make. The United States can no longer be both a global empire and a nation capable of providing a better quality of life and opportunity for its people. We have let our physical and mental infrastructure rot; bridges collapse and are shut down while educational standards and support have fallen through the floor and the social safety net is being shredded. Fighting two costly wars while cutting taxes for the wealthy has led to a dangerous level of debt that must be addressed, no matter how difficult it will be to do so. (This is a reality that many on the left need to admit to.) We can only do one of two things in response: give up imperial ambition while reinvesting in society, or prop up the empire with ever more blood and treasure extracted from a suffering populace on a steady diet of austerity.
Many of the right-wing politicians out there, like Newt Gingrich and Ricky Perry, want to keep funding our metastasized war machine (and even threaten new wars) while engaging in a economic race to the bottom where America becomes a haven for low-wage labor. (That's the real impetus behind Gingrich's endorsement of child labor, by the way.) This approach completely abandons the nation's infrastructure, and replaces it with the kind of cruel laissez-faire calculus that was rightfully abandoned a century ago. To today's mainstream conservatives (not even the radicals), the only thing the government is good for is to drop bombs on brown people. Their vision of America's future, where global supremacy will be attempted to be maintained at the sacrifice of its people, would be a horrific disaster. That is the path of the pompous, predatory eagle. Let us imitate instead the wisdom and practicality of the turkey, and give this "respectable bird" its due as the symbol of a nation wise enough avoid the temptations of empire.