Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving - Conflicted Thoughts On A Conflicted Holiday

[Every post is a draft, but this one feels more drafty than others.  Go back to cooking.]

It's hard to fault the idea of a day for giving thanks.

But the quaint story about Pilgrims feasting and thanking the local indigenous people who saved them that first winter in Plymouth has been exposed for some time now.  The left out parts have been added:  the four hundred years of European immigrants' genocide of Native Americans through war, through appropriation of their land, and death marches to distant reservations, assimilation,  and destruction of their cultures and their resources,  leave a bitter taste with the Thanksgiving turkey.

The cultural movement that exposed the hypocrisy of our Thanksgiving holiday has also exposed other hypocrisies.  The people who benefited from and still cling to the cleansed view of history are finding little cover as the lies and distortions of how they benefited from the appropriation of the land and labor from those deemed as 'the other' are dissolving.  (My use of 'they' is questionable too.  My parents arrived on these shores in the 1930s, with very little.  But at the very least, their whiteness did give them privileges that people of other skin tones didn't get.  And I still get them. But I'm not clinging to the myths.)

I think today's sharp political, economic, and world view divide among Americans, is in part due to the emergence of these new political truths, which, themselves will be modified as time passes.  And I think fundamental differences in how we see the world have always existed, but those who were, in the past, able to keep their world view as the ruling view, are seeing that power slip away.  And they aren't taking it well.

The Constitution (the most basic contract that all Americans implicitly agree on) guarantees us the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  These seem to be the basic values and all the other guarantees are the means to these ends.

But those world views, biased by our different economic and political situations, interpret 'liberty' and 'pursuit of happiness' differently.  And we don't even agree on what life means, when it begins, and when it's morally ok to end it.  

Pursuit of Happiness

'Pursuit of happiness' does NOT mean, to many with wealth (from enough not to worry to so much it's disgusting), the right of others to tax their 'hard earned' money to help others to pursue happiness.  Even many of those whose 'hard earned' money was inherited believe this.  They seem to believe Dad worked hard, so I deserve it.  And Dad believes that he earned it with no help from anyone else.  It was self-made. 

The land taken from Native Americans was their due.  As was the labor taken from slaves.  These are the most stark examples, but there are countless ways that people have been able to get laws passed that benefited them over others - gave their industry reduced taxes or increased subsidies.  Privileged their children from better schools to how the law treated them.  The list goes on and on.  If the 'self-made men' don't acknowledge these benefits, who would expect them to acknowledge the benefits we all get?

Even those who got their money from using their brain to develop an idea and to turn it into a product or service and found a way to get it to market and to earn a good profit, still didn't do it alone, as Obama so infamously said.   They had the backing of a government whose criminal and justice systems kept others from stealing their ideas and profits.  Whose banking systems allowed them to raise, safely store, and exchange funds without the value of those funds fluctuating wildly.  They were able to hire employees who had a public education that enabled them to do the work needed.  Their country's economy was strong enough that people had enough money to buy their products and services.  Their raw materials got to their factories on publicly subsidized roads and railroads and their finished products got to consumers the same way.

Yes, there were often frustrating government regulations  - but at least they were written down and passed by an elected legislature and could be challenged in court.  They weren't arbitrary decisions made on the spot by corrupt officials leaving the entrepreneur to pay a bribe or get turned down, or worse.  That happens in many countries.  And part of the reason our laws are so complicated is that their entrepreneurial colleagues, rather than accept the spirit of the law, hire lawyers to find loopholes in the letter of the law.  This forces the legislature to write more and more laws in a never ending cycle to close loopholes and expand the volume of regulations. 

Anyone whose business was set to open in Damascus two years ago, or in Juarez, or in Madrid or Athens would appreciate the importance of all the amenities that a stable, reasonably honest government provides: the infrastructures that enable people to start a business and succeed.

And, of course, there is luck.  Being at the right place at the right time.  Other would-be entrepreneurs, just as smart, with equally good ideas and talent, don't succeed because they open their business just as the economy tanks or a tornado hits, a new health report scares customers from their product, or a competitor shows up at the same time with a slightly better product or a heftier marketing budget.  

But 'self-made' men (Ayn Rand's mythical heroes) don't see any of these factors that supported their success.   Nor do they see how the system is stacked against others.

Self-made men see those who are not 'successful' as lazy and unworthy.  "If I did it, anyone can."  They don't see their luck in having innate talents that were valued in their cultural setting and useful in their business, that family networks opened the right doors at the right time, that a teacher or friend gave them an important boost when they needed it.  They don't think how the risky actions they survived (a red light run, an insult made, a lawyer trusted) could have just as easily derailed their success.

On the other hand, there are those among the poor, who blame the rich for their situations and avoid the hard work of learning skills at school, of getting and keeping a job, of planning for the future.  They see the world as so stacked against them that that they don't even try.  Just like the wealthy who disdain them, they are at the mercy of genetic inheritance and environmental breaks.  And certainly their bad breaks diminish the odds of their succeeding compared to the folks who despise them as lazy and unmotivated.  And when they stand up and protest their miserable conditions, they are condemned as unpatriotic rioters. 


And if we disagree on the 'pursuit' part, we also disagree on what the 'happiness' part means.  For some it is tied completely to monetary wealth - whether they have it or not.  For others, wealth is about relationships - family who stand by you, friends who celebrate your victories and console your losses with you.  With social wealth, there will almost always be enough to eat and pay the rent, however modest the food and shelter may be.

For me, economic wealth, without social wealth, is empty.  It's the lack of such social security that, I think, causes the 'self-made' heroes to blame poverty on the poor.  In the absence of social wealth, their economic wealth represents their success.  And social wealth is hard to achieve if one's network can't provide enough economic wealth to maintain a basic level of food and shelter and safety. 

The belief in the necessity of competition because we live in a zero-sum world, goes hand-in-hand with the self-made myth. "It's everyone for himself"  justifies the callousness to the plight of others.  But always fighting has to be tiring.  If Tony Soprano is at all realistic, it doesn't lead to happiness, only the trappings of success.

At the bottom of the economy, we find those among the hard core poor also living in a world of competition, of every-man-for-himself.   They'd understand the business leaders who are constantly raiding competitors and destroying other businesses.

OK, this is getting grim for Thanksgiving.  And straying from the Thanksgiving theme.  But I'm looking for why so many people see problems more than they see benefits.   As more of a thinker than a feeler, I believe that understanding reveals the possible paths to change.  I think that people who act more on emotion can change too, without consciously understanding why.  I think to the extent that they feel more love and more accepted and supported, they can let down their guard a bit.  And ultimately, I think 'thinkers' are ruled more by emotion than by rationality as well.

Remember, I started out saying these were more notes than a coherent post.

I like the idea of a day for giving thanks.  I seem to be able to uncouple Thanksgiving Day from the story of the Pilgrims and just make it a day of humility and appreciation for the things I have.  And I have a lot to be thankful for. 

So I'll stop here and give thanks for the time I get to spend with my mom now, time that seems to give us both some comfort.  I give thanks for my children's ability to negotiate the world's changing economic, social, and technological environments with reasonable success and with care for others who are not so successful at it.  I give thanks for being able to participate in the beginnings of my grand daughter's journey through life.  I give thanks for a wife who puts up with all I put her through.  And I give thanks that I live where I have the freedom to write what I think. 

I hope that everyone reading this far is able to find much to be thankful for too. 


  1. Thanks, Steve!

    You've said for me as well.

    Happy days to come!

    1. Thanks for checkin in. Your blog looks interesting - liked the Lakoff piece particularly.

  2. So much guilt, already! Think if you had to govern a nation with your view of its foundational myths, what would you do? That's more to the point of how this holiday got its start. Pumping up one's history isn't limited to the US of A. Not at all. We are just told we can expect better.

    In the UK, Thanksgiving is seen as quite a remarkable occasion -- people getting together as family for no other reason than to be thankful? Odd. It seems to have all the makings of liberal-Pope-talk, doesn't it? Peace and brotherhood and all that.

    But myth serves its purpose if it preserves the essential plot, and I do believe this holiday does just that, in many good ways.

    As I don't find fault with your call to penance, we agree that the myth must be reformed. To do this, will take textbook rewrites and reviews, budgets for books and many school board fights. Maybe it's already happened across that great land.

    It will take separating an essentially moral message from a bad historical one. It will require re-imagining facts, words and images of this great cultural text Americans have been taught to treasure. Greatful for getting through a civil way perhaps? Not bad, really.

    If one is a conservative, in the classic sense, this is difficult work, frought with dangerous deconstructions of text and meanings. If one is liberal, in the modern sense, it is required, ethical and worth the risks in binding up old wounds.

    I ramble too, Steve. It touches what are memories of so many real and good family times. It reminds me of the basic wrongness of the founding position of the country I was born in and to. For Americans to wake to the facts of its history is to ponder an earlier question asked of Roman civilisation in Europe, "But after all the fighting, wasn't Roman civilisation largely good for its conquered peoples?"

    Americans took up war against its first peoples, in conquest driven by visions of a new republic, stretching from sea to shing sea. It too, was imperial.

    So we ask, "Were we not a good empire?" Sure, and I still love Thanksgiving.

    1. Correction: "Greatful for getting through a civil WAR perhaps?"

    2. "Pumping up one's history isn't limited to the US of A. Not at all. We are just told we can expect better."
      - Of course, but this is the place I have the most right and responsibility to challenge it.

      About the rest, yes, thinks are complicated. I didn't think I was asking for penance, but maybe I was - at least from some. The Lakoff piece on Cirze's blog (first commenter) covers similar themes about framing, particularly relevant, framing poverty and redistribution.

      Did you celebrate in London? With other ex-pats?


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