Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has made a career out of writing anti-Thanksgiving diatribes. And today, in Salon, he continues his own holiday tradition by bashing Americans for being “hypocrites” and authors of an Indian “holocaust.”
“Thanksgiving is for sociopaths,” he writes. In this case, I would offer the opinion that it takes one to know one.
In other words: Don’t many of us feel just a bit uncomfortable with a holiday that is defined by obligatory family gatherings that often cover up unresolved strife and/or apathy; thoughtless overeating simply because so much food is available; spectacle sports that have become painfully close to Roman gladiator contests; and relentless consumption that often involves buying stuff that many people don’t really want and no one really needs? Of course not everyone in the United States has access to all these markers of affluence, but these Thanksgiving Day routines are more the norm than aberration.
These reflections are not confined to one day; we live in this corrosive culture 365 days a year. For me, much of what is considered “normal” in the United States isn’t very appealing. I think we eat too much cheap food, are spectators to too much cheap entertainment, and buy too much stuff (some of it cheap and some expensive, but all costly to the larger living world). And many people struggle with family dynamics that are stuck in unresolved pathologies which quietly coerce people into ignoring problems for the sake of family “harmony.”
I have long felt that at the heart of Thanksgiving is a denial of reality and an exercise in numbing ourselves, individually and as a culture. I am not claiming that everyone’s celebration of Thanksgiving is defined by these negatives; individual experiences vary widely, of course. But the alienation I’m describing is not hard to understand, and not limited to a few surly people on the margins.
And whatever one’s personal relationship to the holiday, the political question remains: Why is it “normal” in the United States to celebrate a holiday that is based on a profound distortion of history? That kind of inquiry should lead us to related questions.
Why is it “normal” to embrace the hierarchy and wealth inequality of corporate capitalism, even though most of us claim to hold moral and/or theological principles that are rooted in the centrality of human dignity, equality, and solidarity? How compatible is capitalism with the values that are essential to a decent human community?
Why is it “normal” to assert that we are the world’s most advanced democracy, without acknowledging that the concentration of wealth in the U.S. economy has left most of the population outside of the formal political process? Are capitalism and democracy compatible?
Why is it “normal” to express concern about environmental issues without ever questioning an economic system that is obsessed with the very growth that is undermining the integrity of the ecosystems on which are own lives depend? Is capitalism compatible with a sustainable human presence on the planet?
Using Thanksgiving to criticize capitalism isn’t unique but it is revealing of just how warped Mr. Jensen’s worldview has become. His hatred of Thanksgiving is grounded in his belief in the native American “holocaust” perpetrated by the European “invasion” of America.
He wrote in 2006:
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.
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.
His claim that we ignore this history is idiotic, as I wrote at the time:
It is a nonsensical notion that the “real” history of America is being hidden. The idea that the clash of cultures that resulted in the deaths of 90% of the native Americans who lived here from the time of Columbus isn’t being taught is absurd. The question of how to teach such an enormously complex event that spanned 500 years is never mentioned by simpletons who scream “genocide” when the overwhelming majority of native Americans – some medical historians put the percentage at 90% – died of diseases for which they had zero immunity without ever seeing a white man. Remarkably sophisticated trade routes that criss crossed the country proved to be the death of Indian culture when small pox, measles, mumps, and other diseases that Europeans had develped varying levels of immunity against struck native Americans with full virulence and moved rapidly across the country. Some estimates put the death toll from disease at 80% of all North American Indians by 1580. less than 100 years after Columbus sighted land.
Clearly, the native American was treated abysmally by white governments through our history. This is not in dispute and the fact that the forced movement of indigenous peoples resulted in thousands of deaths is also a fact of history. That same history is replete with stories of massacres by white settlers and soldiers of native Americans as well as massacres by Indians of whites. That too, is a fact of history of which little is mentioned by Jensen et al when accusing whites of genocide.
Jensen has a point – a point he fails to make with any rational or logical argument. To prove genocide, he must show that it was the policy of the US government to kill all Native Americans. This simply isn’t true and even a casual look at our history shows wild swings by the US government between trying to destoy Indian culture and pursuing policies that sought to save it. In the end, the least successful policies tried to turn hunter gatherer socieites into agricultural communities – policies that are reaping a bitter harvest even today.
Jensen’s thesis is that Europeans should have stayed in Europe. But the reason Europeans came here was because of a technological revolution that allowed for open water sailing. It is counterintuitive to believe that once discovered, the secret of building ships capable of crossing the ocean would remain hidden for any length of time.
For the rest — the sad history of the clash of civilizations was inevitable, as was the outcome. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond asked the simple question: why didn’t native peoples in North America, Africa, and Australia sail across the ocean and try to colonize Europe? It was certainly not because they were inferior in any way. But Europeans had much nastier germs, had learned the secret of steel, and had crude but effective firearms that could kill at a distance. Diamond shows that because agriculture blossomed thousands of years earlier in Eurasia than elsewhere, the necessity to develop sophisticated political organizations and create large, powerful armies meant that when the culture clash occurred, the result was entirely predictable.
Jensen’s Thanksgiving critiques are shallow hyperbole and are written in the style of a lefty blogger seeking attention. Too bad he missed an opportunity to say something meaningful about our consumer society and its excesses.