Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Living in Wonderland

The news seems, these days, in the United States at least, always to be extreme. Now it sounds old to say, “When I was a child, there were no ‘extreme’ news stories or ‘extreme’ sports, or ‘extreme’ anything.” Even if it is true—and it is true, I assure you—it isn’t the present reality. The present reality is one of extremes, extreme sports like “Zorbing,” or “Powerbocking,” or “Parkour.” They are extreme precisely because they are dangerous. A website devoted to them states it well (if un peu trompé): “Extreme sports are all about the thrill. For some people, it’s for pure fun, and for others its [sic] about testing the limits of what is humanly possible.”[1] What was once hopping about on a pogo stick has been transformed into Xpogo—short for extreme pogo. Such extremes are evocative not of the world I once knew, but a kind of Carrolian Wonderland.

Take Thanksgiving, for example. It was once just a holiday, pretty innocuous on the surface of it. Of course, it was acknowledged that the (much more than) cultural appropriation—in fact it was territorial appropriation—of the Europeans had come to the Americas and had brought with them a desire for adventure combined with a desire for prosperity (and in many, if not most cases, a desire for new freedoms, particularly religious freedom), and that with their coming came cultural displacement, cultural suppression and the confiscation of land. These were the difficult consequences of the migration/invasion/exploration of the Europeans coming to the new world. With them they brought diseases, particularly the common cold, which had devastating effects on the native population. They also brought advanced weaponry, a different kind of civilization, new religious ideas, and different values. Yet in the midst of all this chaos there was an idea that was realized in a moment of peace that hopefully showed some goodwill coming from both sides of the principal ethnic and cultural divide between the Europeans and Native Americans (the latter of which is a term that itself is unsettling, as the name “American” is derived not from a native word but from the name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci). That moment of peace, however idealized, is known as Thanksgiving, and I do hope that you and yours recently enjoyed a restful and peaceful Thanksgiving—if you celebrate.

I say “if” because it is now an emerging trend to ditch this holiday, too. I can fully understand and even embrace ditching Christmas. If one is not a Christian, why would one keep up the pretense of a emotive story about a baby being born in a stable, especially if that baby will, when full grown, prove either to be insane (claiming to be God, and all) or, worse yet, be so offensive as to impose his worldview on you—indeed on the world. I agree it is absurd to celebrate this holiday if you’re not a true believer.

But Thanksgiving had, until these days of extremes, always been given a kind of conditional pass. The condition is, of course, that one recognize that the European invasion/migration/domination had to happen, wasn’t preventable, and that it would be unrealistic and anachronistic to expect the settlers at the time to have had a post-modern perspective. They can’t be expected to have thought “politically correctly” in an era long before such a way of thinking existed.

But nowadays that free pass has evaporated, it would seem, as a prominent actress, Mayim Bialik, recently put forth a Youtube video in which she details four reasons why she finds Thanksgiving repulsive. “The truth is,” she states, “European invaders came to this land, took it from the indigenous people, raped, pillaged, gave them all sorts of diseases, called it their own, and desecrated a culture. It is one of the grossest examples of genocide in recent history and much as I don’t want to think about that, it’s really hard for me not to think about that when I think about Thanksgiving.”

That’s a lot of thinking, or perhaps not thinking it through. Genocide is hardly the right word, since it implies a clear motive—the way that murder is differentiated from manslaughter. Inasmuch as most Native Americans died from diseases brought by the Europeans,[2] it would be a gross overstatement to say that the European settlers were genocidal.

Yet in the same spirit, I think, out-of-work quarterback Colin Kampernick, who single-handedly started a no-standing-for-the-national-anthem revolution, visited Alcatraz to support Native Americans who were celebrating “Unthanksgiving.” It’s hard to argue with the logic—of course we should support those who are oppressed or marginalized—until one ponders the whole Thanksgiving question for a few minutes. For if one does, one would rightly conclude that the point of Thanksgiving was never to vaunt, “We won, here’s our party to show that we conquered and oppressed the Native American population!” Only the most cynical person, someone deliberately imposing upon history their own interpretation of the events—admittedly often very sad events—could interpret a Thanksgiving celebration that way.

N.C. Wyeth, Pilgrims—Thanksgiving

Indeed, the facts simply don’t lend themselves to such an interpretation. I say facts, because we have written accounts of them and, though, yes, these are written from the European perspective, they offer enough evidence to make it clear that the holiday’s origin is that of a harvest festival, and that the feast was shared between Native Americans and pilgrims.[3] No one is pretending that there were not terrible atrocities associated with the European migration/invasion/conquest. But rather, Thanksgiving is actually a holiday that celebrates what it says, the giving of thanks.[4] And that thanks was to God.

And there, I suspect, is where the true offense must actually lie. It’s basically the same offense that Christmas contains. It’s the name, not the history, or even the rewritten history. The name of Christmas has “Christ” in it. That is rightfully, as detailed above, a stumbling block, even an offense to the non-believer. And the entire meaning of the title “Thanksgiving” is offensive because it imposes upon the hearer the notion that one should (or some at least do) give thanks. And where else but to God himself? Yes, there’s the real offense. (And to make things worse, in most European languages the word “thanks” is derived from the Latin gratia, “grace,” a concept deeply embedded in Christian (and therefore European) thought. Muchas gracias. Lots of grace, thank you very much.

How do we make sense of all this in a world of extremes that seems at times, bespattered as it is with holidays such as UnThanksgiving, houses of unworship (known as unchurhces),[5] and bizarre plastic surgeries,[6] to be a kind of Mad Hatter’s world, Wonderland in its most deranged sense? I think John F. Kennedy’s words, taken from that same proclamation, cited in note 4, that he wrote about Thanksgiving just before he died, may offer us a sane a place to reflect and to offer our private thanks:

“Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings–let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals–and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.”[7]

[1] http://activecities.com/blog/extreme-sports-listed-from-intense-to-insane/.

[2] http://nativeamericannetroots.net/diary/325.

[3] Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1620) and William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1651).

[4] President John F. Kennedy wrote in Proclamation 3560, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God…. Much time has passed since the first colonists came to rocky shores and dark forests of an unknown continent, much time since President Washington led a young people into the experience of nationhood, much time since President Lincoln saw the American nation through the ordeal of fraternal war—and in these years our population, our plenty and our power have all grown apace. Today we are a nation of nearly two hundred million souls, stretching from coast to coast, on into the Pacific and north toward the Arctic, a nation enjoying the fruits of an ever-expanding agriculture and industry and achieving standards of living unknown in previous history. We give our humble thanks for this. Yet, as our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers—for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” ( http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9511.)

[5] https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Unchurch-of-the-Singularity/139440006118027.

[6] This one is added, admittedly, simply gratuitously: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIyaK2yNn-w.

[7] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9511.

 

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