I have stopped hating Thanksgiving and learned to be afraid of the holiday.
Over the past few years a growing number of white people have joined the longstanding indigenous people’s critique of the holocaust denial that is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday. In two recent essays I have examined the disturbing nature of a holiday rooted in a celebration of the European conquest of the Americas, which means the celebration of the Europeans’ genocidal campaign against indigenous people that is central to the creation of the United States. Many similar pieces have been published in predominantly white left/progressive media, while indigenous people continue to mark the holiday as a “National Day of Mourning”.
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.
Here’s what I think it tells us: As a society, the United States is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt. This is a society in which even progressive people routinely allow national and family traditions to trump fundamental human decency. It’s a society in which, in the privileged sectors, getting along and not causing trouble are often valued above honesty and accountability. Though it’s painful to consider, it’s possible that such a society is beyond redemption. Such a consideration becomes frightening when we recognize that all this goes on in the most affluent and militarily powerful country in the history of the world, but a country that is falling apart — an empire in decline.
Thanksgiving should teach us all to be afraid.
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.
In left/radical circles, even though that basic critique is widely accepted, a relatively small number of people argue that we should renounce the holiday and refuse to celebrate it in any fashion. 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.
I press these points with no sense of moral superiority. For many years I didn’t give these questions a thought, and for some years after that I sat sullenly at Thanksgiving dinners, unwilling to raise my voice. For the past few years I’ve spent the day alone, which was less stressful for me personally (and, probably, less stressful for people around me) but had no political effect. This year I’ve avoided the issue by accepting a speaking invitation in Canada, taking myself out of the country on that day. But that feels like a cheap resolution, again with no political effect in the United States.
The next step for me is to seek creative ways to use the tension around this holiday for political purposes, to highlight the white-supremacist and predatory nature of the dominant culture, then and now. Is it possible to find a way to bring people together in public to contest the values of the dominant culture? How can those of us who want to reject that dominant culture meet our intellectual, political, and moral obligations? How can we act righteously without slipping into self-righteousness? What strategies create the most expansive space possible for honest engagement with others?
Along with allies in Austin, I’ve struggled with the question of how to create an alternative public event that could contribute to a more honest accounting of the American holocausts in the past (not only the indigenous genocide, but African slavery) and present (the murderous U.S. assault on the developing world, especially in the past six decades, in places such as Vietnam and Iraq).
Some have suggested an educational event, bringing in speakers to talk about those holocausts. Others have suggested a gathering focused on atonement. Should the event be more political or more spiritual? Perhaps some combination of methods and goals is possible.
However we decide to proceed, we can’t ignore the ugly ideological realities of the holiday. My fear of those realities is appropriate but facing reality need not leave us paralyzed by fear; instead it can help us understand the contours of the multiple crises — economic and ecological, political and cultural — that we face. The challenge is to channel our fear into action. I hope that next year I will find a way to take another step toward a more meaningful honoring of our intellectual, political, and moral obligations.
As we approach Thanksgiving Day, I’m eager to hear about the successful strategies of others. For such advice, I would be thankful.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.