Because the history of the United States is comprised of contradictions (e.g. while its political institutions are rooted in the notion of freedom, its economic institutions arise from a foundation of slavery) it should come as little surprise to find that the holiday of Thanksgiving – so intertwined these days with hyper-consumerism – itself grew out of the rejection of a compelled commercialism.
Prior to the Reformation in England, the Church maintained dozens of various holidays and feast days throughout the year. And not only were people compelled to participate in these celebrations, in addition to attending church services, they were also often required to purchase the various items employed in these rituals – candles and knickknacks, and other religious bric-a-brac, the cost of which were in the aggregate not insubstantial.
Rejecting this compulsory consumption and opulence for a life of severe simplicity, the religious practices of the Puritans of the time eliminated not only these rituals, but all holidays. Instead of Easter, Christmas and the rest, days of thanks (celebrating propitious events as they arose) and days of fasting, honoring the more solemn occasions, were observed. And when they set sail for the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in search of religious freedom once and for all, the Puritans brought this approach to holidays along with them.
It is worth observing that, in 1621 – the year of the Pilgrims’ legendary first thanksgiving dinner – the extremely powerful commercial enterprise, the Dutch West India Company, which would colonize what now includes the New York Metropolitan region, received its charter. Since 1609, when Henry Hudson first sailed into New York Harbor, chroniclers of the region consistently recorded in their accounts that, among the plenitude of fishes and the other riches of the strange world they encountered, the smell of the air was remarkably sweet, even at significant distances from the shore. In subsequent accounts, many would attribute this presence – among other things – to some sort of natural chance, or happenstance, the random richness of the land. More recent studies, however reveal that what were formerly conceived of as merely natural concurrences were, in fact, the result of the economic and cultural practices of the indigenous people, the Lenape. Attentively tending to the land, the Lenape produced and reproduced the conditions of plenitude encountered by Hudson and his crew. And although distinct, the Lenape were closely related – sharing not only a related language but a similar eastern woodland culture as well – to the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts, with whom the Pilgrims reputedly shared their first Thanksgiving.
As the centuries passed, and as their indigenous neighbors were systematically removed, it is interesting to see that – in spite of their mutual antipathy – the Pilgrims’ religious fundamentalism and the commercial aggressiveness of their neighbors in what would come to be New York, among other places, would blend into a type of fundamentalist commercialism. And as this commercial culture developed, along with its “Indian removal” policies, and its slavery-based economy, and its array of technical wonders, it managed as well to transform the formerly bucolic land of the Lenape, and others, into a toxic sprawl of traffic, industry, and garbage. To be sure, unlike the mariners of Hudson’s time, those who arrive in New York City these days do not smell the scent of flowers at all; those who are not already inured to it smell merely the cloud of car exhaust, blended with the other fumes blanketing the region.
Beyond this relatively mild – though still carcinogenic – smell, those visiting today might also see the vast new slums and still fresh wreckage left by Superstorm Sandy – only the most recent instance of the meteorological harms contemporary economic practices generate.
Yet, if this destruction is caused in part by the quantities of garbage and the poisonous fumes that are a byproduct of economic activity, it is no less attributable to the garbage and poison introduced as an intentional, finished product. One example of just such a product – much-discussed in the news these days – is the Hostess Corporation’s Twinkies. Indeed, it is a measure of the degree to which the priorities of this economy are inverted that the threatened shuttering of the Hostess Corporation (which produces little, if anything, that is not poisonous) should itself jeopardize people’s health by eliminating their livelihoods, compromising their ability to secure necessities. In other words, it is an upside-down economic system that determines that a person’s ability to acquire necessities, and live a healthy life, is contingent on how well the junk food industry peddles its toxic, cream-filled sponge-cakes.
In spite of the destructive practices present in every link of their production chain – from their sugar plantations to their factories, not to mention their modes of distribution – in terms of harms, the junk food industry is practically beneficent compared to the energy industry. While, among others, Naomi Klein has lately taken to terming them “rogue corporations,” insofar as they harm the public health, the corporations comprising the energy industry should rather be viewed as criminal organizations. Indeed, if – as countless jurists over the centuries, including many US Supreme Court justices, have maintained – the health of the people is the supreme law, these violations of global public health constitute not only moral, but legal wrongs. When one adds the destruction that is wreaked by the “extreme weather events” (that they cause) to their oil spills and rig explosions – not to mention the various paramilitary activities they conduct across the world – the harms attributable to the energy industry far exceed those perpetrated by, say, Al Qaeda – an organization that couldn’t commit a fraction of the damage on purpose that Exxon, Shell, and BP, among others, commit annually merely by accident.
But if the Thanksgiving holiday is rooted in a rejection of ritualistic commercialism, it is also noteworthy that the word Thank is etymologically rooted in the word Think. And when one thinks about the toxic conditions our commercial culture constantly creates, reproducing – along with the more mundane forms of domination – ecocide and wars as a matter of business, one would think that instead of suffering conniptions over the commercial fundamentalists’ concerns regarding the cutting of deficits and the balancing of budgets (which is merely a pretext for the further privatization of the world and funneling of wealth to the rich) more people would exhibit a comparable measure of concern to cutting and eliminating the concrete pollutants and practices causing our actual ills in the first place. Moreover, because the Puritans practiced days of fasting along with days of thanks, one might think – especially at this time of year – that such a response to the ecological breakdown our fundamentalist consumerism is generating would be the observance of just such a day, or days, of fasting as well. To be sure, for such a practice to adequately address today’s exigencies, the notion of fasting ought to be expanded to include not only the abstention from food, but from economic activities in general, allowing the biosphere the time and rest necessary to heal itself. If the notion of thanks, appreciation, and gratitude is to advance at all beyond its most superficial, commercialistic, and ultimately meaningless articulation, it must not fail to incorporate within it the need to curtail the reproduction of harms. And though such a pursuit ought to be pursued for its own sake, when faced with unprecedented ecological collapse it must be regarded as a social, economic, and political priority of foremost concern. Indeed, if the health of the people of the world is the supreme law, compliance cannot be optional.