Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Thoughts on White Liberal Guilt, Atonement, and the Genocide of the First Americans

Robert Jensen at Alternet is dead wrong.
No Thanks to Thanksgiving

By Robert Jensen, AlterNet. Posted November 27, 2008.

Instead, we should atone for the genocide that was incited -- and condoned -- by the very men we idolize as our 'heroic' founding fathers.

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, Mass., one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

. . .

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."
There are so many things wrong about this kind of thinking, that I don't even really know where to begin. First off, no amount of fasting or "Days of Atonement" is going to "Atone" for the capital-G Genocide that was perpetrated upon the First Americans. No way. No how. It is almost insulting to think that you can somehow "atone" for the deaths of an entire civilization by taking a Holiday to think to youselves: Well, gosh we sure do feel real bad about all that.

Second, the threads connecting the diverse population of America today to those who committed genocide are thin to say the least. Very few Americans today are directly related to those who perpetrated genocide upon the indigenous population. Very few indeed. Should black Americans, who were enslaved by these same early white conquerors also take Thanksgiving as a day of Atonement?

Third, most progressives would go ballistic over the notion that a son or daughter ought to pay for the crimes of their parents. Yet so many of us repeatedly fail to apply this ethically correct thinking to history. White Americans today are NOT guilty of committing genocide on Native Americans. They are NOT guilty of owning slaves. They have NOTHING to apologize for, on those scores, nor would their apologies change anything. White Americans are not "born guilty." Slaveholding and genocide are not transferred genetically. I am sick to death of those who say otherwise.

Fourth, check the history, folks. There's no doubt that there was an active campaign of genocide perpetrated against the First Americans. But there is also no doubt that this campaign was dwarfed in its scope, and in its effectiveness, by scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is what killed off most of the native population that was here when the Europeans arrived. The active campaign of genocide was a far and distant second.

Fifth, our responsibility is to build a better America TODAY, not "atone" for the sins of our (few and distant) ancestors who were guilty of genocide and slave-holding. We cannot change the past. We cannot "atone" for what WE DID NOT DO. You can atone for your own sins, but not for others'. Atonement is wonderful as a personal endeavor, but I'm skeptical of its efficacy as a collective one. Progressives are better off focusing on building a more just and equitable society today, and for tomorrow. Emphasizing the past is pointless and self-defeating.

Sixth, guilt is not a particularly motivating feeling. Assuming some kind of personal responsibility for events that were utterly beyond our control is not going to make people want to get up, get out of their houses, and do something to help build more just, less violent, and less greedy society. Regardless of its good intentions, Jensen's proposed "Day of Atonement" would likely amount to little more than a day for backwards-looking liberal hand-wringing over events we can never undo, and for which we could never truly atone. Ultimately this would be followed by the shallow, satisfactory self-righteousness that caricaturizes progressive causes. Progressives need to CORRECT the mistakes of the past, not atone for them.


John Stoner said...

I generally agree with you. I think, however, there is room for both atonement and thanksgiving. In fact, they're two sides of the same coin.

Thus: we celebrate America's diversity. It's part of our national identity. To be American, mostly, is to be from somewhere else. We've made beauty out of that. It's one of the things that makes me proudest of my American-ness: my claim on a global heritage.

But, without the crimes of the past, without this stolen land, none of this beautiful multiculturalism would have come to pass. To create our melting pot, first we emptied the pot. That's a terrible thing, and we did it brutally, and that's something we should own.

But, looking both forward and backward, we can resolve to be tolerant, peaceable, and curious about the world and other viewpoints. We can resolve to welcome others into the space that was created for us.

When we take the multicultural opportunity, to practice tolerance and peace with different cultures, we honor the sacrifices of those who went before, on all the sides of all the battles that led to this moment.

This is how we knit together our painful past and our peaceful future. We can give our thanks for the opportunity we have. And we can commit that one day, we will enact a page of history unstained with blood.

Downtown Dave said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, John, as always.

I'm just not sure how folks like you and me could ever "own" the brutality that took place from 1500-1950, nor that we should have to live our lives under the weight of that very heavy burden.

We have enough work to do today on building a more just society for tomorrow, without having to assume responsibility for things that happened decades before we were even in existence.

Anonymous said...

We may not "own" the brutality that created the United States of America, but white Americans continue to get a disproportionate share of the benefits of that creation, not least because it was done by people who looked like us for the benefit of subsequent generations of people who looked like them, and we really do have to own that.

We don't have to feel guilty, but we do have to look critically at the ways the game today is rigged in our favor by the events of history. Understanding that is an important step toward changing it.

I totally agree with you that guilt is not a motivator, but I think there are people who use the notion "I wasn't there, I didn't do it" as an excuse not to take responsibility for working for an equitable society today.

I guess what I would say is history handed us the gift and the burden of white privilege, and it's up to us to figure out how to hasten the day when everybody has access to the goodies it brings--good schools, good jobs, good neighborhoods, etc.

Downtown Dave said...

Your comments are all true, and of course white privilege is very real. But that's not necessarily the same as assuming personal responsibility for that which happened before we were ever born.

I think my original post makes it clear that hold European conquerors 100% responsible for their actions, which amounted to genocide. I am no white-washer of the ugliness of American history. I just don't think that attempts to "atone" for the actions of the early Euro-Americans are worthwhile.

The genocide of the first Americans is un-aton-able.

John Stoner said...

Well, let's put it in a larger context. We did not begin mistreating each other in 1492. We've been doing this to each other for more millennia than history has.

But all of that has led to this moment, this opportunity. There are battles we could find where the 'bad guys' won, where had the reverse happened, you or I would not have been born. We have those defeats to thank for our very existence.

Now when I say, 'own that,' I don't mean that we should obsess over every crime long past. I mean we should be conscious of our history, and conscious that we are cut from the same cloth as those who committed those crimes, and watchful of our own hearts. That's why atonement is not just about your actions. That's (one reason) why I have a meditative practice.

It's arguable we've been at the brutality game longer than we've been human beings. We haven't stopped yet. I do believe human nature does change over time, but it's slow. Owning that means being humble, as one step in that process, and committing that our step is towards the light.

Downtown Dave said...

Consciousness, yes, John. An unflinching view of history, yes. And of course, brutality and people murdering each other are not unique to the European conquerors of America. They are part of the whole homo sapiens thing, and always have been.

I'm still having trouble though, trying to see how we could follow Jensen's mode of a "Day of Atonement" for the sins of (a very small number) of our distant ancestors.

If we were to build a more just society, one less addicted to brutality, one that treated all human beings as equals, perhaps that might be a way of turning our karma back toward the right direction. I'm still not sure that doing so could atone for the Genocide of the indigenous population, which paved the way for the creation of the American state.

But at the very least, building such a society would ensure that down the line, there is less for which our children's children's childrento feel that THEY must somehow atone.

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