Should Thanksgiving be celebrated?
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...
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