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.
criticism from right-wing and centrist people, given their common
commitment to this countrys 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.
common argument went something like this: OK, its 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 cultures
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.
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.
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. Stannards American Holocaust: Columbus
and the Conquest of the New World and Ward Churchills
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.
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.
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
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
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
need to help each other tell the truth, even when the truth is
of redefining Thanksgiving
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.
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
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.
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.
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
to the Nazis are routinely overused and typically hyperbolic,
but this is directly analogous. These are fair, albeit painful,
questions for all of us.
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 dont 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 cant pretend to redefine
it in private. One either accepts the dominant definition or resists
it, publicly and privately.
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.
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
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
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.
year, Ive decided to disengage and explain why to
the people who invited me. What
will I do on Thanksgiving Day this year? Ill probably
spend part of the day alone... Ill miss the company
of friends and family who are gathering, and Ill try
to reflect on why Ive made this choice and why this
question matters to me.
choices: Make people comfortable by engaging or by disengaging
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.
is that there are people who may not have a family or community
with which they celebrate such holidays; its important to
remember that there are people on such holidays who are alone
and/or lonely, and to them these political questions may seem
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.
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 were not attending, which means taking the risk of alienating
those who want to enjoy the day without politics.
Ive 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
Once I make
that decision, of course I also have the option of participating
in a public event that resists Thanksgiving. Im not aware
of one happening in my community, and because of commitments to
other political projects I didnt 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.
will I do on Thanksgiving Day this year? Ill probably spend
part of the day alone. Maybe Ill take a long walk and think
about all this. Ill try to be kind and decent to the people
I bump into during the day. Ill miss the company of friends
and family who are gathering, and Ill try to reflect on
why Ive made this choice and why this question matters to
me. Ill think about why others made the choices they made.
year, whatever I do, I wont celebrate Thanksgiving. Im
going to let that parade pass me by.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas
at Austin and a member of the board of the Third
Coast Activist Resource Center. His
latest book is Getting
Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press,
2007). He is the author of The
Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege , Citizens
of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity and Writing
Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream
(Peter Lang). He can be reached at
his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.
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