Thanksgiving – Light and Dark

There has been an exchange on the Curmudgeons list about whether Thanksgiving should be regarded as a day of mourning and fasting as atonement for the genocide of Native Americans.  My own response comes from the gut as much as from the mind.  One who needs to never forget the Shoah (the proper Hebrew term for the Holocaust) should acknowledge the other genocides that have been attempted or accomplished.
I will not share here the exchange, which I regard as private communications (as private as anything on the Internet is anyway).  Here is most of my response to complaints about my position that I wrote today (Thanksgiving morning).  I start with the link to one of the offending articles explaining the call for making Thanksgiving a day of mourning.
Here is the relevant passage from it giving a bit of the real story.

“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.”

Since 1970 Native Americans have observed our Thanksgiving as a day of mourning.  They consider this day as the start of a pattern of genocidal behavior that continued for centuries and was followed in the 20th century by a campaign to destroy Native American culture and languages.  Meanwhile our popular culture ignores this history.  It took the Pine Ridge Reservation revolt and AIM (whose violence I was against) to wake up at least some Americans to this dark aspect of our national history.  Saying it is past time to remember it and seek atonement is a moral statement, not a political one.  It is being used for political purposes however.

There is a big difference between actual history and nationalist indoctrination, which is largely what the teaching of US history in our school system consists of.

We should know what kind of religion and society the Puritans lived in.  They were too narrow-minded even to tolerate other kinds of Christians.  They believed that God is eternally angry with even the most virtuous of us (see Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God” which is considered the beginning of American religious literature.  here is a site with quotes  https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/618854-sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god)  These are the people who carried out the Salem witch trials.  They certainly did not respect the native peoples who allowed the survival of their first group.

Again – Having said all of that, I regard Thanksgiving as important, just not for the story of “the first Thanksgiving.”

Here is an excerpt from Kirkpatrick’s book posted on her web site.

Many famous figures walk these pages—Washington, who proclaimed our first Thanksgiving as a nation amid controversy about his Constitutional power to do so; Lincoln, who wanted to heal a divided nation sick of war when he called for all Americans—North and South—to mark a Thanksgiving Day; FDR, who set off a debate on state’s rights when he changed the traditional date of Thanksgiving.

At a time when this nation is more divided than ever with a POTUS who feeds on that division, we need Thanksgiving as much as we did when Lincoln first made it a national holiday in the midst of the Civil War.

The ability to give thanks is the only real source of happiness, because otherwise no one will ever be satiated enough to be happy.  Giving thanks to God, if you believe in God, is one of the best things about faith.  Being able to acknowledge the support we have from other people and also from society is part of that too.

Those who cannot acknowledge how other people and society (including government when it functions as it should) are not going to be happy.  They will be afraid, sad, and angry.  This misreading of “Self-Reliance” (Emerson’s essay that we all probably read in high school).  I admire the local culture which is one of interdependence.  People mind their own business.  Most respect others.  Many stand ready to help when they are needed.  This is based on the idea that each of us is an independent being but we are all connected and we all rely on each other.  I think that is the best of America, where it exists (much less in places like NYC than here).

If some Americans see the dark side of our history as predominant, I think that is wrong.  I do not agree that Thanksgiving should be observed as a day of fasting (far from it).  On the other hand those who feel this way do not deserve to be condemned for taking a moral stance.  Either you believe that this is a free society which allows diversity of opinion, which is what Thanksgiving was made to celebrate, or you think we should all march in lock-step following our national mythos.  We condemn other societies for doing that (USSR, PRC, etc.)  We should guard against that temptation in our own.

Jewish history is a mix of dark and light.  Here’s how we regard our holidays in a well-known (among us anyway) quip.  “They tried to kill us.  They failed.  Lat’s eat.”  Denial is wrong but so is wallowing in victimhood.

Eat with good appetite and give thanks to the thousands of working people who made the bounty on your table possible.  Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

L’shalom

Phil

3 responses to “Thanksgiving – Light and Dark”

  1. Joshua Bentley says :

    You know I normally totally agree with what you say, but

    “I think that is the best of America, where it exists (much less in places like NYC than here).”

    This is really just reinforcing a false stereotype. If nothing else, the number of people who went downtown in September 2011 to see what, if anything, they could do to help is a testament to how wrong this stereotype is.

    Even on a smaller scale, whenever I see anyone in the city fall or get injured dozens of folks come and see if the person needs help.

    Yes, there are certain “bubble” issues, but the idea that we don’t mind our own business even if someone needs our help is not one of them.

  2. pearleaf2012 says :

    Hi Josh – What you say is true, but not the whole story. In Jericho I was frequently told not to address NIMBY issues in my sermons. The selfishness of many people and their short-sightedness was very evident to me. I do think that most people, seeing someone in distress, might well see if they can do anything to help. That is very true where I live now. On the other hand I once sat in my car, which had died at the stoplight on Marcus Avenue just before Hillside Ave. (i.e., a short walk from our house) for 45 minutes before someone stopped to ask if I needed help. I had forgotten by phone that day and was stuck in rush hour traffic. People were driving around me honking their horns or yelling at me that whole time. Finally an old country Italian gardener stopped and loaned me his phone.

  3. Joshua Bentley says :

    So you had a bad experience in Nassau County and yet you blame NYC. Tsk tsk tsk. ;P

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