Raining on the Thanksgiving Day parade: “Redefining” the holiday is a failed project
By Robert Jensen
Published in Dissident Voice · November, 2007
After years of being constantly annoyed and often angry about the historical denial built into Thanksgiving Day, I published an essay in November 2005 suggesting we replace the feasting with fasting and create a National Day of Atonement to acknowledge the genocide of indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States.
I expected criticism from right-wing and centrist people, given their common commitment to this country’s distorted self-image that supports the triumphalist/supremacist notions about the United States so common in conventional politics, and I got plenty of such critique. But I was surprised by the resistance from liberals — even some on the left, including a considerable number of my friends.
The most common argument went something like this: OK, it’s true that the Thanksgiving Day mythology is rooted in a fraudulent story — about the European invaders coming in peace to the “New World,” eager to cooperate with indigenous people — which conveniently ignores the reality of European barbarism in the conquest of the continent. But we can reject the culture’s self-congratulatory attempts to rewrite history, I have been told, and come together on Thanksgiving to celebrate the love and connections among family and friends.
The argument that we can ignore the collective cultural definition of Thanksgiving and create our own meaning in private has always struck me as odd. This commitment to Thanksgiving puts these left/radical critics in the position of internalizing one of the central messages promoted by the ideologues of capitalism — that individual behavior in private is more important than collective action in public. The claim that through private action we can create our own reality is one of the key tenets of a predatory corporate capitalism that naturalizes unjust hierarchy, a part of the overall project of discouraging political struggle and encouraging us to retreat into a private realm where life is defined by consumption.
So this November, rather than mount another attack on the national mythology around Thanksgiving — a mythology that amounts to a kind of holocaust denial, and which has been critiqued for many years by many people — I want to explore why so many who understand and accept this critique still celebrate Thanksgiving, and why rejecting such celebrations sparks such controversy.
Once we know, what do we do?
At this point in history, anyone who wants to know this reality of U.S. history — that the extermination of indigenous peoples was, both in a technical legal sense and in common usage, genocide — can easily find the resources to know. If this idea is new, I would recommend two books, David E. Stannard’s American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World and Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide. While the concept of genocide, which is defined as the deliberate attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” came into existence after World War II, it accurately describes the program that Europeans and their descendants pursued to acquire the territory that would become the United States of America.
Once we know that, what do we do? The moral response — that is, the response that would be consistent with the moral values around justice and equality that most of us claim to hold — would be a truth-and-reconciliation process that would not only correct the historical record but also redistribute land and wealth. In the white-supremacist and patriarchal society in which we live, operating within the parameters set by a greed-based capitalist system, such a process is hard to imagine in the short term. So, the question for left/radical people is: What political activity can we engage in to keep alive this kind of critique until a time when social conditions might make a truly progressive politics possible?
In short: Once we know, what do we do in a world that is not yet ready to know, or knows but will not deal with the consequences of that knowledge?
The general answer to that question is simple, though often difficult to put into practice: We must keep speaking honestly, as often as possible, in as many venues as possible. We must resist the conventional wisdom. We must reject the cultural amnesia. We must refuse to be polite when politeness means capitulation to lies.
I have not always been strong enough to meet even these basic moral obligations. Most of us in positions of unearned privilege and power would be wise to avoid pontificating about our moral superiority and political courage, given our routine failures. Can any of us not point to moments when we went along to get along? Have any of us done enough to bring our lives in line with the values we claim to hold?
Still, we need to help each other tell the truth, even when the truth is not welcome.
The illusion of redefining Thanksgiving
Imagine that Germany won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday offering a whitewashed version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Imagine that the holiday provided a welcomed time for families and friends to gather and enjoy food and conversation. Imagine that businesses, schools and government offices closed on this day.
What would we say about such a holiday? Would we not question the distortions woven into such a celebration? Would we not demand a more accurate historical account? Would we not, in fact, denounce such a holiday as grotesque?
Now, imagine that left/liberal Germans — those who were critical of the power structure that created that distorted history and who in other settings would challenge the political uses of those distortions — put aside their critique and celebrated the holiday with their fellow citizens, claiming to ignore the meaning of the holiday created by the dominant culture.
What would we say about such people? Would we not question their commitment to the principles they claim to hold? Would we not demand a more courageous politics?
Comparisons to the Nazis are routinely overused and typically hyperbolic, but this is directly analogous. These are fair, albeit painful, questions for all of us.
Left/liberals who want to claim they are rejecting that European-supremacist and racist use of Thanksgiving and “redefining” the holiday in private clearly avoid the obvious: We don’t define holidays individually — 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. One either accepts the dominant definition or resists it, publicly and privately.
Of course people often struggle for control over the meaning of symbols and holidays, but typically we engage in such battles when we believe there is some positive aspect of the symbol or holiday worth fighting for. For example, Christians — some of whom believe that Christmas should focus on the values of universal love and world peace rather than on orgiastic consumption — may resist that commercialization and argue in public and private for a different approach to the holiday. Those people typically continue to celebrate Christmas, but in ways consistent with those values. In that case, people are trying to recover and/or reinforce something that they believe is positive because of values rooted in a historical tradition. Those folks struggle over the meaning of Christmas because they believe the core of Christianity is experienced through the people we touch, not the products we purchase. In that endeavor, Christians are arguing the culture has gone astray and lost the positive historical grounding of the holiday.
But what is positive in the historical events that define Thanksgiving? What tradition are we trying to return to? I have no quarrel with designating a day (or days) that would allow people to take a break from our often manic work routines and appreciate the importance of community, encouraging all of us to be grateful for what we have. But if that is the goal, why yoke it to Thanksgiving Day and a history of celebrating European/white dominance and conquest? Trying to transform Thanksgiving Day into a true day of thanksgiving, it seems to me, is possible only by letting go of this holiday, not by remaining rooted in it. If there were a major shift in the culture and a majority of people could confront these historical realities, perhaps the last Thursday in November could be so transformed. But that shift and transformation are, to say the least, not yet here.
For too long, I ignored these troubling questions. To get along, I went along. I buried my concerns to avoid making trouble. But in recent years that has become more difficult. So, this year I want to acknowledge my past failures to raise these issues and commit not only to renouncing Thanksgiving publicly but also to refusing to participate in any celebration of it privately.
The choices: Make people comfortable by engaging or by disengaging
Obviously there are people in the United States — indigenous and otherwise — who do not celebrate Thanksgiving or who mark it, in private and/or in public, as a day of mourning.
Also obvious is that there are people who may not have a family or community with which they celebrate such holidays; it’s important to remember that there are people on such holidays who are alone and/or lonely, and to them these political questions may seem irrelevant.
But for those of us who do get invited to traditional Thanksgiving Day dinners, how do we remain true to our stated political and moral principles? I think we have two choices.
We can go to the Thanksgiving gatherings put on by friends and family, determined to raise these issues and willing to take the risk of alienating those who want to enjoy the day without politics. Or, we can refuse to go to such a gathering and make it known why we’re not attending, which means taking the risk of alienating those who want to enjoy the day without politics.
This year, I’ve decided to disengage and explain why to the people who invited me. These are people I love, yet who have made a different decision. My love for them has not diminished, and I trust the conversation with them about this and other political/moral questions will continue.
Once I make that decision, of course I also have the option of participating in a public event that resists Thanksgiving. I’m not aware of one happening in my community, and because of commitments to other political projects I didn’t feel I could organize an effective event in time for this Thanksgiving Day. But on the assumption that others may feel this way, I have started thinking about what kind of public gathering could make such a political statement effectively, and in the future I hope to find others who are interested in such an event locally.
So, what will I do on Thanksgiving Day this year? I’ll probably spend part of the day alone. Maybe I’ll take a long walk and think about all this. I’ll try to be kind and decent to the people I bump into during the day. I’ll miss the company of friends and family who are gathering, and I’ll try to reflect on why I’ve made this choice and why this question matters to me. I’ll think about why others made the choices they made.
But this year, whatever I do, I won’t celebrate Thanksgiving. I’m going to let that parade pass me by.
An edited version of this essay ran as “Nothing to celebrate about this holiday,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 18, 2007