Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankless

Happy Thanksgiving!

I suppose it's naive of me to be surprised, but I am surprised and somehow really saddened to learn that Thanksgiving has such different meanings for different people. Rush Limbaugh apparently derided the entirely conventional Thanksgiving message of President Obama, which said: "This Thanksgiving Day, we reflect on the compassion and contributions of Native Americans, whose skill in agriculture helped the early colonists survive, and whose rich culture continues to add to our Nation's heritage. ... This spirit brought together the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe - who had been living and thriving around Plymouth, Massachusetts for thousands of years - in an autumn harvest feast centuries ago."

Limbaugh's response? "Obama believes this nation is fatally flawed since its founding, even before its founding. ... [he] said that Thanksgiving is about the Indians saving us... The true story of Thanksgiving is how socialism failed. Of course we showed them gratitude. We shared our bounty with them. Not because we didn't know how to make it. It's because we first failed as socialists. Only when we turned capitalists did we have plenty. The Indians didn't teach us capitalism."
Thanksgiving's about the the failure of socialism? That's the story a certain kind of conservative has been telling for some time (since the Cold War, in fact): the Pilgrims tried communal living and nearly starved, only surviving and then thriving when they changed their rules to allow the principle of free enterprise - which made them so energetic and motivated that they prospered! They had enough even to share with the Injuns. Thank the God who rewards competition and self-interest!

When I first read about this version of Thanksgiving in a fascinating article by Kate Zernike in last week's "Week in Review" (source also of the illustration), I was bemused if also a little peeved: oh those ignorant Tea Partyers, do they have to politicize everything? But now that Thanksgiving is upon us I am offended and saddened. Take away the idea of mutual help and gratitude - thank God for your own effort, for competition, for capitalism? - and America's the poorer for it. But as I write this I'm aware that for many, not just Tea Partyers, America is God's Own Country because of its capitalist system, resplendently self-sufficient and proudly requiring help from noone. (Noone but God, who helps them that help themselves - including helping themselves to the Native Americans' land.) The Cold War Thanksgiving fits with self-righteous exceptionalism in international politics and callousness in the domestic sphere.

The first thanksgivings weren't about socialism or capitalism, but even if they were: no God I know would bless a land which gives thanks for never having to give thanks.

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