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How I Stopped Hating Thanksgiving and Learned to Be Afraid

Robert Jensen

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

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

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.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen, is professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of many books including The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability and Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. He is the co-author, with Wes Jackson, of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in fall 2022.

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