Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks for What and to Whom?

 I've been ambivalent about Thanksgiving for a long time.  Thanksgiving - in my experience - is a time when family and friends come together, consider and give thanks for their blessings, and enjoy each other's company.

But then there's all that stuff about Pilgrims in Plymouth.  If any of the basic story is true, the European immigrants essentially came to North America, were helped to survive their first difficult winter, and then went on to decimate their hosts and take over the land.  Not a good basis for a holiday of thanksgiving.

And then there's all that poultry that's cooped up, butchered, frozen, and shipped to supermarkets, raising questions about how healthy the meat is and how humanitarian the turkeys are treated.  I focused on that two years ago.

About two weeks ago, a friend sent me an article called  "How I Stopped Hating Thanksgiving And Learned To Be Afraid"  by Robert Jensen.  Here are some excerpts. 

In recent years I have refused to participate in Thanksgiving Day meals, even with friends and family who share this critical analysis and reject the national mythology around manifest destiny. In bowing out of those gatherings, I would often tell folks that I hated Thanksgiving. I realize now that "hate" is the wrong word to describe my emotional reaction to the holiday. I am afraid of Thanksgiving. More accurately, I am afraid of what Thanksgiving tells us about both the dominant culture and much of the alleged counterculture. . .

Although it's well known to anyone who wants to know, let me summarize the argument against Thanksgiving: European invaders exterminated nearly the entire indigenous population to create the United States. Without that holocaust, the United States as we know it would not exist. The United States celebrates a Thanksgiving Day holiday dominated not by atonement for that horrendous crime against humanity but by a falsified account of the "encounter" between Europeans and American Indians. When confronted with this, most people in the United States (outside of indigenous communities) ignore the history or attack those who make the argument. This is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt. . .
He's enjoying his righteous indignation a bit too much I think.  After all, can't we make this day of thanksgiving mean whatever we want it to mean?  From his perspective, and this is the part I have to think about seriously..
Most leftists who celebrate Thanksgiving claim that they can individually redefine the holiday in a politically progressive fashion in private, which is an illusory dodge: We don't define holidays individually or privately -- the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning. When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can't pretend to redefine it in private. To pretend we can do that also is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.
He certainly likes that refrain. . . intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.  Phil, can you put that to music?

As I said above, I have qualms about Thanksgiving, but his claims to own the truth here and call people who disagree names seems disingenuous too.  And he never even mentions the killing of all the turkeys every year.

The way he puts it, it seems we have only a couple of options:  Keep on being hypocrites or abandon Thanksgiving.  Possibly there's a third option - some official decoupling Thanksgiving from the story of the pilgrims.  I'd argue that that can happen gradually as more and more people do that in their personal celebrations - consciously talk about the new meaning of Thanksgiving at their dinners.

I'm planning to partake in Thanksgiving, remembering the good things of this year and of my life and offering thanks.  But I'm also going to remember  that a sentient creature was sacrificed so that we might eat.  We may even find some alternative to a turkey one day. And if this day of giving thanks is based on pilgrims whose descendants took everything from the descendants of their hosts, then we must contemplate that too while we eat.  We can't change what happened, but we can live our lives in ways that prevent things like that from happening on our watch.


  1. Perspective at work once again.

    Gene and I spent our annual gathering with Americans, being with Americans, at St Paul's Cathedral in London today--an intimate gathering with the ambassador of roughly 3,000 Americans.

    We began doing this while George W was in office as a way to commemorate something good about our natal land. It helped. At these gatherings we invariably meet the various tribes of this nation. I can tell you, each year, when singing 'America, the Beautiful', we check what it is to still have hope in that song's words.

    It is our moment to think about what it means to be part of the experiment that was, and is, the United States of America. Food be damned. Gatherings be done. For us, it's become a necessary remembrance of the simple human gesture of being thankful for our time on this earth.

    Thanksgiving has moved far beyond historical myth for us, beyond what is eaten or what games are on. It is an essentially spiritual occasion, that can be jointly celebrated by any and all. I have often said that the day America's gay and lesbian children can sit at the Thanksgiving Day table with their chosen families, loved and valued... oh, you get the point.

    We each bring our story to this great celebration. That is why it's needed as it is the stuff which unites us against all the things that insist in our differences.

    The myth of America is that its story somehow existed without invention. Of course it was fashioned. Every nation, every tribe, every religion creates its story. If we know that the traditional Indian welfare story is flawed, then its time to change it.

    It is must change. More and more of us refer to George Washington's day of thanks, of Lincoln setting aside a day of thanks during the American Civil War. Focus on that story and also teach how it was possible for one people to war against another, time and yet time again, all over this world. Political boundaries have forever shifted because of force. The world will over white mans' guilt as irrelevant. Other nations are setting right the stories we told to justify dominance.

    I won't try to discuss meat. Not now or here. We're having duck, free-range until it gave its life for our sins. All other days, we veg.

    Thanksgiving. That small best of what I still value about the country I once lived in. If you don't like it, stuff it (nicely, of course).

    Happy Thanksgiving! and may this day find you and yours knowing you are wealthy in troubles and happiness, for that is life. Recount both, be thankful for all you have and tell someone you love them be it God, a child or the person sitting next to you.

    Peace be upon your houses and here endeth this epistle.

  2. ...and my apologies for the typos and such. I was fixing our dinner at the same time.


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