How I Stopped Hating Thanksgiving and Learned to Be Afraid

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 afraid.

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 States.

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.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

26 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on November 13th, 2009 at 10:37am #

    I love this article. We need a day of examination of our national conscience.
    (Someone here will probably reply that we have no “national conscience”. That’s the point. We need one.)

  2. Tanya said on November 13th, 2009 at 10:42am #

    Great piece. I am in Guatemala at the moment, and workers organized massive strikes on “Columbus Day,” also known as Dia de la Raza. The point is that there is a similar movement in Latin America to decry the celebration of Columbus and the “discovery” of the Americas. Perhaps one could look there for lessons.

  3. bozh said on November 13th, 2009 at 11:32am #

    historians whose books i have read do not speak of genocidal actions in ancient times against conqurees by winning lands or empires.
    In those days, empires needed tax payers and soldiers to defend or expand the conquerning nations’ empires or lands.
    In add’n, there was fewer people then. Two k yrs ago, pop may have been at just 500mn.
    Exception to this practise being hebrews, if one wld evaluate torahic accounts as true.
    But with rise of a cult like christianity, that was no longer true. Expulsion and genocides were on.
    Bosnia, palestine, chechnya, americas testify to that. And it may get even worse; especially against neoindians!

  4. kalidas said on November 13th, 2009 at 12:19pm #

    Well bozh, how many Buddhists and Hindus, will you find in Afghanistan these days?
    How about Iran?
    I’ll stop there..

  5. kalidas said on November 13th, 2009 at 1:06pm #

    I’ve always assumed the USA has a case of bad karma to rival any in history. How could it not?
    It’s just a matter of time.
    The attractive thing about karma is it’s impersonal. No God required.
    Even atheists and agnostics (haha), of which this site is exclusively made up of, (as well as every contributor and progressive, liberal, etc.) can embrace the justice of karma. Even, dare I say it, the hope of karma.
    Are there any innocents in this murderous blood drenched society of cheaters and cheated?
    Well, one may only hope so.

    You might not believe in karma, but karma sure believes in you.
    Some think this applies to nations as well.

  6. Jahi said on November 13th, 2009 at 4:15pm #

    Dr. Jensen has again hit a nerve, in a very good way. Another great article, as some valid points have been mentioned. However, as I read this article I find myself feeling cheated yet again, as this whole issue regarding the indigenous peoples is very close to my heart… The point that I’m making is how the TRUE indigenous people were (for the most part) re-classified… Many of the so-called Indians were actually Africans that had been in the Americas for years; nevertheless, either no one seems to know this historically accurate fact, or no one is willing to admit it. So, whether it’s Christopher Columbus’ holiday, Thanksgiving Day & the impact on the so-called Indians (The Moors also), the lies and secrets of the past have to be discussed, so that conscious people left with this legacy of bloodshed, deceit & greed can better address all of the ugly effects that have resulted from these atrocities, and ensure it never happens again.

  7. Marc Schlee said on November 13th, 2009 at 9:38pm #

    Maybe after the Chinese exterminate us they’ll have “Nixon Appreciation Day”.

    FREE AMERICA

    REVOLUTIONARY (DIRECT) DEMOCRACY

  8. Jeffersonian-Marxist said on November 13th, 2009 at 9:45pm #

    GET READY FOR THE 5 TO 10 EXTRA LBS. GAINED ON THE BINGE-EATING GLUTTONY AND GLORIFIED GREED OF THANKSGIVING DAY

    MANY PEOPLE IN THE U.S.A. INGEST AS MUCH AS 10,000 CALORIES ON THAT, WHICH IS DETRIMENTAL TO THE HEALTH

    Institutionalized Glorification of our Greed and Gluttony
    Reflections of an Anti-Capitalist
    By Jason Miller
    11/23/07

    http://jeffersonian-anti-israel-socialists.blogspot.com/2008/12/institutionalized-glorification-of-our.html

    Another propaganda-driven greed-fest has nearly passed in the land of the corporatized and the home of the subservient. Obedient little wage slaves and consumers that most of us are (to varying degrees of course), we have once again dutifully greased the wheels of the monstrous capitalist machine and made our proper sacrifices at the altar of Mammon. Between our voracious inhalation of all manner of edibles to our obscene spree of rapacious spending using money eagerly fronted by the usurious kings of finance capital, Thanksgiving and Black Friday are celebratory days indeed for the moneyed elite comprising the allegedly non-existent ruling class in our “egalitarian” and “democratic” nation.

    I celebrated Thanksgiving. However, I wasn’t bowing my head and expressing gratitude to the Calvinist God in which I am “supposed to” believe for the things for which I “should” be grateful. There was an interesting duality to my day as I contemplated that for which I feel a deep ingratitude and celebrated that which sparks my feelings of sincere gratitude.

    The components of my “Thanklessgiving” included:
    1. The trillions of OUR tax dollars OUR government spends each year attempting to attain global hegemony through nearly ubiquitous military bases, a nuclear arsenal large enough to obliterate the universe, and numerous ecocidal, genocidal invasions of ridiculously weaker nations which, fortunately, usually give us a bit of what we deserve by sending us home limping.

    2. The US American Gulag, a penal system populated by over two million human beings. The “land of the free” has the largest number of incarcerated people in the world, even surpassing China, the most populous and allegedly most repressive nation in the world. Criminalizing select forms of self-medicating (those that predominate in the urban core Bantustans to which we have relegated much of our black population) has proven to be an efficient means of “legally” repressing black males. Meanwhile, alcohol, a drug which severely impairs judgment, lowers inhibitions, causes the bloody demise of over 16,000 innocents on our highways each year, and tends to increase the belligerence factor exponentially, remains quite legal and practically flows from the spigots of our homes. And we’re imprisoning people for the possession of marijuana?

    3. Factory farms and the fast food industry that necessitated their genesis. …

  9. russell olausen said on November 13th, 2009 at 11:33pm #

    All you non-whites, take heart, the insane, capitalist, calculating, segment of the so-called white race known as the over-class has taken to raping its own handmaidens. I assume the possibility of a palace revolt or worse is now brewing due to the out burst of megalomania recently witnessed. I personally hope they sober up from their wild horse ride but if not drowning in a creek will do.

  10. B99 said on November 14th, 2009 at 7:23am #

    I don’t know of any scholarship that posits that many Native-Americans (in the US) were actually Africans. Certainly, there has been intermixing, especially back in the slave period when Africans escaped their plantations. And certainly some Native-Americans owned black slaves. There are groups of Indians in the US today that have a fair amount of African ancestry. BUT, the vast majority of Native-Americans are either ‘pure’ blood or mixed with European ancestry.

    With regard to Thanksgiving – the few Indians I know treat Thanksgiving like whites do – a day off from work, sleep-in a bit, then cook and eat dinner with friends and family , booze a bit – and put the game on the tube.

  11. Annie Ladysmith said on November 14th, 2009 at 9:09am #

    Your self-righteousness is nauseating! Just wait a little while, there is another genocide coming and if you have a big mouth and speak out against The Rockefeller Rule (which i’m sure you won’t), you can be a victim this time around.

  12. Annie said on November 14th, 2009 at 5:56pm #

    John White, an English artist who arrived in Virgina in 1587 wrote this to accompany drawings and water-color paintings he made of Native Americans titled “A Brief and True Report of the New-Found Land of Virginia”: “It is a pleasing picture to see these people wading and sailing in their shallow rivers. They are untroubled by the desire to pile up riches for their children, and live in perfect contentment with their present state, in friendship with each other, sharing all those things with which God has so bountifully provided them.” Needles to say, this contentment has since been eradicated.

  13. Addie Jones said on November 14th, 2009 at 9:56pm #

    Dr Jensoen, great post, needed sayi9ng. I am 60. I left the USA in 1991 tolive in Asia and will never return to the USA. I have not celebrated Thanksigiving since 1991 and don’t miss it at all. You sum it up nicely. It is an arrogant dumb holiday. Also Christmas should go. And Easter too. I have not seen a white church steeple on a white church in the midwest or a crucific os Jesus on a car for 17 years and I do not miss it at all. America is a country of very nice people who are nevertheless brainwashed and programmed, mindcontrolled, by the dominanat White Chruistian BS that masqerades for Truth. Not.

  14. Hue Longer said on November 15th, 2009 at 2:51am #

    Hello Robert,

    Don’t let Canada off the hook, they have Thanks Giving as well on a different date and push the bullshit hard

    I was recently in Stanley Park in BC looking at the Jesus like statue of Lord Stanley and his supposed words underneath read something like Vancouver being a place for all colours and creeds (definitely read “all colors and creeds”)…I’m suspecting he said no such bullshit but if he did it’s the same nice words- removed from the lying and backstabbing -that gets highlighted in the US.

  15. Jeffersonian-Marxist said on November 16th, 2009 at 2:42pm #

    HELLO ALL: i am realist, and i also love psychology and the emotions of people. I know that a lot of our holidays are a hoax and not real. However you guys gotta understand that life in the USA and in most countries is too boring, too stressful and devoid of parties, pleasures and happy emotions for most people. I think that people should keep celebrating thanksgiving with their traditional turkeys, potatoe salads, pecan pie, and breads.

    Even the philosopher F. Nietzsche said that life would be a terrible depressive mistake without art, fiction, religion and lies. The truth is that truth is too depressive, it even decreases energies and motivation. And to tell an american family to stop celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas would even stress out more than they are already stressed.

    People can continue to celebrate christmas and thanksgiving, and at the same time vote for Socialist Parties in elections. So i don’t think that staying away from thanksgiving and christmas will overthrow this capitalist system.

    The real solution for USA is not to quit eating, to quit drinking alcohol and to quit partying.

    The real solution for America is really to vote for Socialist Workers Parties in elections and if there are no Socialist Candidates available at least to support a social-democrat like Nader or The Green Party.

    .

  16. Annie Ladysmith said on November 16th, 2009 at 4:10pm #

    Dear lil’ J/MARXIST, your self-righteous, others-loathing, punk-talk is so immature i would put you at about age 14—i’m i right?? You stupid lil’ vacuous fool, you are part of the problem and you don’t even know it. They will make a jailor out of you, but if i’m in your jail i will take the opportunity to strangle the last bit of fluff out of you–, and it won’t take long. If they don’t make a jailor out of you then they will program you for a school shoot-out, like i said, programed idiots like you are part of the problem.

  17. Hue Longer said on November 17th, 2009 at 1:11am #

    JM,

    She is I believe a Constitutionalist

    Yes, she supported the tea parties

    Some of them are on crank because it’s the best way to stay up at night and listen to Art Bell

  18. Whoo Whoo said on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:08pm #

    White intellectualized over-hyped guilt. I didn’t kill the Indians. My people were forced out of Wales by the English — first to Ireland, then to Canada, then to America. After reading your article, the idea of someone as conflicted and sanctimonious like you “being alone” on Thanksgiving probably made everyone else a great deal happier. We celebrate Thanksgiving, heartily, in whatever context we choose to believe in. This is what make us Americans. I won’t be chained to guilt. I deplore holocausts. I won’t allow them in my lifetime. But I will joyfully celebrate.

  19. B99 said on November 23rd, 2009 at 2:28pm #

    Whoo – But you do recognize don’t you – that your presence in this country now was made possible by centuries of Indian-killing by our ancestors, no? Doesn’t mean you have to give up turkey or football, it’s just a matter of understanding how the nation came into being. It’s not like you’d have to ‘go back’ to Wales if you recognize this history as valid.

  20. Shabnam said on November 23rd, 2009 at 3:00pm #

    “I deplore holocausts. I won’t allow them in my lifetime. But I will joyfully celebrate.”

    You still DON’T GET IT. How did you arrive at this position that made you able to take over the land? The reason is that you had the gun powder and they did not. You were able to kill the indigenous population by violent act and take over their resources. It is obvious that you have no sympathy for the victims because you do not understand the nature of the crime you your ancestors have committed, instead, you have internalized their lies against the indigenous population, and otherwise, you would have been more supportive of writer’s point of view.
    Now, you are doing the same thing today and supporting Zionist wars against innocent people by not protesting against the war and supporting it with your tax money because you have no sense of responsibility. I am sure one day you would like to add a day of celebration for Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine to your list. We, however, do NOT ALLOW YOUR LIST To BE EXPANDED by killing and destruction of far away countries to bring you more time to do shopping at the Mall.

  21. lclarsen said on November 24th, 2009 at 11:08pm #

    yeah… trillions on the military, mass material poverty around the world, coming resource apocalypse… i think what we really need to do is attack thanksgiving!

    grow the f* up.

  22. Deadbeat said on November 25th, 2009 at 3:45am #

    It looks like lclarsen you fully understand what Thanksgiving is all about

  23. National Communist said on November 26th, 2009 at 11:12pm #

    The family wanted to eat the traditional meal today, I did not participate and ate alone.

  24. Suthiano said on November 27th, 2009 at 12:41am #

    “Even the philosopher F. Nietzsche said that life would be a terrible depressive mistake without art, fiction, religion and lies. The truth is that truth is too depressive, it even decreases energies and motivation.”

    you fail to grasp the content of your words.

    “It is known by very few, for example, that the secret of Nietzsche’s style in Thus Spake Zarathustra lies in the fact that he imbibed certain poisonous substances which brought into play within him a particular rhythm, which is the distinctive style of this work.”

    The Festivals and Their Meaning, II. Easter V, THE TEACHINGS OF THE RISEN CHRIST, Steiner…

    Let me say this alone: politics leads only to destruction, until you realize the connection between what we call evolution and the plant world, you will have only grasped at plastic straws, devoid of any profound meaning.

    cheers

  25. Suthiano said on November 27th, 2009 at 12:43am #

    N.B. that was written in 1922 by a man who knew Nietzsche personally… something they don’t teach you at school (simulate shock that academia has misled you).

  26. S.L. Toddard said on November 28th, 2009 at 9:56am #

    “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.”

    Mr. Jensen is right to expose the multiculturalist myth of Thanksgiving as a sham. It would be of great benefit to Americans if he would continue working to expose further the multiculturalist, egalitarian version of American history for the canard it is. Indeed, the first Thanksgivings were not celebrations of egalitarianism and feel-good one-world multiculturalism, they were celebrations by a particular people, of their particular triumphs in the New World over the environment and the foes they vanquished. Much as the Declaration of Independence, despite the rhetoric, was not truly a declaration of universal, abstract rights (and therefore not the founding document of a fictional propositional nation), but rather a political statement of separation of one particular people (Americans, i.e. the Anglo settlers and those who came after that fully assimilated into their culture) from another (the British). Americans (unhyphenated) are a particular ethnic group with collective interests and rights like any other, and that our history should be perverted by multicultists, jacobins and the like – for the express purpose of divorcing us from our history, ancestry and each other – is foul calumny.

    I do hope he will do more work in this vein, and help us purge multiculturalist distortions from our history and society.