Robert Jensen / AlterNet & Ben Franklin & Human Events – 2005-11-24 09:35:04
No Thanks to Thanksgiving
Robert Jensen / AlterNet
(November 23, 2005) — One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.
In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.
Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits — which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.
That the world’s great powers achieved “greatness” through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.
But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin — the genocide of indigenous people — is of special importance today. It’s now routine — even among conservative commentators — to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.
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.
Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.
The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians’ land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving “wild beasts” from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”
Thomas Jefferson — president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the “merciless Indian Savages” — was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn’t stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, “[W]e shall destroy all of them.”
As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”
Roosevelt also once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here’s how “respectable” politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations’ lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.
In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who “settled” the country — and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.
But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable — such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States — suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, “Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?”
This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class — one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about history.
This off-and-on engagement with history isn’t of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, US elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.
Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America’s much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to “humble our proud nation” and “undermine young people’s faith in our country.”
Yes, of course — that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.
History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.
Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.
As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of, most recently, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege. (City Lights, 2005).
© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
Ben Franklin’s Politically Incorrect Thanksgiving
(November 23, 2005) — Did you know that the day we celebrate as Thanksgiving was supposed to be a fast? It took one politically incorrect farmer to change the course of history. When the government tried to impose a fast, he called for a grand feas — thanksgivings — so that Americans could celebrate their bounty and nourish their bodies, not lament their hardships through hunger.
The Real Story of the First Thanksgiving
By Benjamin Franklin (1785)
There is a tradition that in the planting of New England, the first settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is generally the case when a civiliz’d people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness country.
Being so piously dispos’d, they sought relief from heaven by laying their wants and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer. Constant meditation and discourse on these subjects kept their minds gloomy and discontented, and like the children of Israel there were many dispos’d to return to the Egypt which persecution had induc’d them to abandon.
At length, when it was proposed in the Assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer of plain sense rose and remark’d that the inconveniences they suffer’d, and concerning which they had so often weary’d heaven with their complaints, were not so great as they might have expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthen’d; that the earth began to reward their labour and furnish liberally for their subsistence; that their seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate healthy, and above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious.
He therefore thought that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable and lead more to make them contented with their situation; and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they ow’d to the divine being, if instead of a fast they should proclaim a thanksgiving.
His advice was taken, and from that day to this, they have in every year observ’d circumstances of public felicity sufficient to furnish employment for a Thanksgiving Day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed.”
© 2005 Human Events.
Ben Franklin’s tale of the first Thanksgiving is revealed in The Compleated Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin, edited by Franklin descendent Mark Skousen, a professor at Columbia University.
The Liberty Forum
Some 852 million people across the world are hungry, up from 842 million a year ago. (10)
Every day, more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes–one child every five seconds. (3)
In essence, hunger is the most extreme form of poverty, where individuals or families cannot afford to meet their most basic need for food. (1)
Hunger manifests itself in many ways other than starvation and famine. Most poor people who battle hunger deal with chronic undernourishment and vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which result in stunted growth, weakness and heightened susceptibility to illness. (1)
Countries in which a large portion of the population battles hunger daily are usually poor and often lack the social safety nets we enjoy, such as soup kitchens, food stamps, and job training programs. When a family that lives in a poor country cannot grow enough food or earn enough money to buy food, there is nowhere to turn for help. (1)
Facts and Figures on Population
Today our world houses 6.47 billion people. (2)
The United States is a part of the developed or industrialized world, which consists of about 50 countries with a combined population of only 0.9 billion, less than one sixth of the world’s population. (1)
In contrast, approximately 5 billion people live in the developing world. This world is made up of about 125 low and middle-income countries in which people generally have a lower standard of living with access to fewer goods and services than people in high-income countries. (1)
The remaining 0.4 billion live in countries in transition, which include the Baltic states, eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (3)
Facts and Figures on Hunger and Poverty
In the developing world, more than 1.2 billion people currently live below the international poverty line, earning less than $1 per day. (4)
Among this group of poor people, many have problems obtaining adequate, nutritious food for themselves and their families. As a result, 815 million people in the developing world are undernourished. They consume less than the minimum amount of calories essential for sound health and growth. (10 )
Undernourishment negatively affects people’s health, productivity, sense of hope and overall well-being. A lack of food can stunt growth, slow thinking, sap energy, hinder fetal development and contribute to mental retardation. (1)
Economically, the constant securing of food consumes valuable time and energy of poor people, allowing less time for work and earning income. (1)
Socially, the lack of food erodes relationships and feeds shame so that those most in need of support are often least able to call on it. (1)
Go to the World Food Programme website and click on either “Counting the Hungry” or “Interactive Hunger Map” for presentations on hunger and poverty around the world.
Facts and Figures on Health
Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or have disabilities, according to the World Health Organization. (5)
Pregnant women, new mothers who breastfeed infants, and children are among the most at risk of undernourishment. (5)
153 million children under 5 in the developing world are underweight. Worse yet, 11 million children younger than 5 die every year, more than half from hunger-related causes. (6)
Most of these deaths are attributed, not to outright starvation, but to diseases that move in on vulnerable children whose bodies have been weakened by hunger. (6)
Every year, more than 20 million low-birth weight babies are born in developing countries. These babies risk dying in infancy, while those who survive often suffer lifelong physical and cognitive disabilities. (10)
The four most common childhood illnesses are diarrhea, acute respiratory illness, malaria and measles. Each of these illnesses is both preventable and treatable. Yet, again, poverty interferes in parents’ ability to access immunizations and medicines. Chronic undernourishment on top of insufficient treatment greatly increases a child’s risk of death. (6)
In the developing world, 27 percent of children under 5 are moderately to severely underweight. 8 percent are severely underweight. 8 percent of children under 5 are moderately to severely wasted, or seriously below weight for one’s height, and an overwhelming 31 percent are moderately to severely stunted, or seriously below normal height for one’s age. (7)
Facts and Figures on HIV/AIDS
The spreading HIV/AIDS epidemic has quickly become a major obstacle in the fight against hunger and poverty in developing countries. (3)
Because the majority of those falling sick with AIDS are young adults who normally harvest crops, food production has dropped dramatically in countries with high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates. (3)
In southern Africa, close to 500,000 people died of AIDS in 2001 alone, fueling a serious food crisis in 2002-2003 in which more than 14 million people faced hunger and starvation. (3)
Infected adults also leave behind children and elderly relatives, who have little means to provide for themselves. In 2001, 2.5 million children were newly orphaned in Southern Africa. (3)
Since the epidemic began, 25 million people have died from AIDS, which has caused more than 13 million children to lose either their mother or both parents. For its analysis, UNICEF uses a term that illustrates the gravity of the situation; child-headed households, or minors orphaned by HIV/AIDS who are raising their siblings. (3, 8, 9)
1.1 % (ages 15-49) of the world is HIV prevalent
1.3 % (ages 15-49) of developing countries are HIV prevalent
71 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the world. Of this figure, 68 million live in the developing world, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. (4)
Citations and links to source material:
• 1. Are We On Track To End Hunger? Hunger Report 2004. Bread for the World Institute
• 2. 2005 World Population Data Sheet. Population Reference Bureau
• 3. State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/j0083e/j0083e00.htm
• 4. Human Development Report 2005, United Nations Development Programme.
• 5. World Health Organization.
• 6. State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y7352e/y7352e00.htm
• 7. State of the World’s Children Report 2005—”Childhood Under Threat”. UNICEF. http://www.unicefusa.org/site/pp.asp?c=duLRI8O0H&b=262152
• 8. UNICEF
• 9. Human Development Report 2002, Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World, United Nations Development Programme.
• 10. State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/documents/show_cdr.asp?url_file=/docrep/007/y5650e/y5650e00.htm
It is not by mere luck that we enjoy a disparate supply of the world’s wealth and goods, but by design:
We [the USA] have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment.
Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which permit us to maintain this position of disparity.
We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction – unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization.
The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
– George Kennan, then Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, in a memo, 1948. James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me (Touchstone 1996), describes Kennan as “the most powerful voice in US foreign policy following World War II”.