Sunday, November 18, 2007

Give Thanks No More: A National Day of Atonement

Students, This is an excellent comment on the meaning of Thanksgiving Day (Día de Gracias) practiced in the U.S., as well as on the uses and misuses of history. This critique can surely be applied to Mexico as well in terms of its treatment of the indigenous in the school curriculum as a historical footnote. Jensen, a colleague of mine at the University of Texas, shows well why this matters.

-Angela


Give Thanks No More
A National Day of Atonement
By ROBERT JENSEN


One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved 'greatness' through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin -- the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving 'wild beasts' from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, 'both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape.' Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the 'merciless Indian Savages' -- was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, '[W]e shall destroy all of them.'

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process 'due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.' Roosevelt also once said, 'I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.'

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how 'respectable' politicians, pundits, and professors play the game:

When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history. In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who 'settled' the country -- and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, 'Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?'

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to 'humble our proud nation' and 'undermine young people's faith in our country.'

Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact. Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony.

History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects on the day's mythology on our minds.

--
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. He is 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). He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Raining on the Thanksgiving Day parade: “Redefining” the holiday is a failed project

by Robert Jensen


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.

http://www.pilgrimhall.org/daymourn.htm

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.



--------------------------------



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 rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.