No Thanks to ThanksgivingThere 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.
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."
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.