While most of us are celebrating a day intended to remind us to be thankful for the various blessings in our lives, there will always be some people so consumed with politics that they will play a role equivalent to the Grinch at Christmas. That seems to be the point being made this week by Matt Lewis in his latest column at the Daily Beast. The holiday is a target for some on the left who equate it to the genocide of indigenous Americans, colonialism and slavery. Matt further argues that there are some on the conservative side of the fence who have given up on the idea of American exceptionalism and might prefer some sort of monarchy where obedience to God and country are mandatory, stomping out some of the disruptive proclamations of the modern left. But how much of the Thanksgiving tradition is actually rooted in the early history of the United States and how much is founded in the words of Abraham Lincoln who first proclaimed it as an official holiday during the Civil War?
The culture war doesn’t take Thanksgiving week off, and its two main participants aren’t big on giving thanks, anyway.
The illiberal left wants to radically transform an inherently evil America that was founded on slavery and colonialism. The post-liberal right wants to forfeit the idea of liberal democracy, contending that modern America is weak, secular, and decadent.
Let’s start with the left. On Tuesday, the Women’s March issued an apology for sending out an email noting that their average donation this week had been $14.92. “It was an oversight on our part to not make the connection to a year of colonization, conquest, and genocide for Indigenous people, especially before Thanksgiving,” they said. This is stupidity that defies satire.
Meanwhile, MSNBC recently invited writer Gyasi Ross to talk about the “mythology” of Thanksgiving. “Instead of bringing stuffing and biscuits, those settlers brought genocide and violence,” he said. “That genocide and violence is still on the menu as state-sponsored violence against Native and Black Americans is commonplace. And violent private white supremacy is celebrated and subsidized.”
As Matt points out, the early history of European settlers in North America is complicated to say the least. The Pilgrims on the Mayflower did originally settle in what is now the United States and they signed a treaty with the Wampanoag Confederacy of Native Americans. They lived (mostly) peacefully together for roughly fifty years and they did indeed share a feast day in 1621 after their first successful harvest.
After that, the story changes quite a bit. During the westward expansion of the primarily European Americans, there were some atrocities committed by both sides at various times, but the indigenous people definitely got the worst of it. The situation wound up being just about as close to a true genocide as you’d care to imagine between warfare and the ravages of smallpox. Many inconvenient promises were broken and some of the bitterness over that portion of our history lingers to this day.
At the same time, treating America as some sort of special case in this sense is a completely false narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a single country in the 21st century that isn’t inhabited by a mixture of people who originally arrived from somewhere else and displaced the humans who had settled there before them. This even applies to most of the countries in Africa (thought by many, though not all, to be the original birthplace of modern humans), where various tribes have tangled and ousted each other for centuries. The people we think of as Filipinos today are a mixture of Asian and Hispanic imports to the islands. The original inhabitants of the Philipines (the Negritos) live in small, isolated tribes in the mountains and look very different.
For better or worse, human history is written by the winners. But that’s still not what Thanksgiving is really supposed to be about. It’s a time to give thanks for whatever blessings you have received, no matter how meager those blessings may be at times. While you still have breath in your lungs there is always hope. And if you find yourself on this day simply having a roof over your head, food of any sort on your table, and some family or friends to share it with, you have much to give thanks for. There will always be those with more or less than yourself. So rather than spending your day shouting at the ocean about what a horrible place America is, perhaps you might help your blood pressure levels and your community by simply engaging in some quiet reflection and taking a moment to give thanks. If you have the ability to read this article today, you already have much to be thankful for compared to many others.