November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks?

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman 

National holidays such as Thanksgiving provide a wonderful opportunity for us to apply many of the themes related to sociological mindfulness. It is useful to think about the role that holidays play in society, the values and beliefs these holidays instill, and the extent to which we can deconstruct the “facts” and assumptions of these holidays. Consider some of the myths and realities of Thanksgiving taken from sociologist James W. Loewen’s national bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.

PilgrimsThe origin myth surrounding Thanksgiving.  Newsflash: The Pilgrims were not the first non-native settlers to the United States. The first non-native settlers were African slaves left in South Carolina in 1526 by Spaniards who abandoned their settlement. Moreover, the Eastern Indians, not the Pilgrims, observed autumnal harvest for centuries. Our modern celebrations of Thanksgiving date back to 1863 when President Lincoln invoked the holiday as a means toward fostering greater patriotism for the Civil War effort. Pilgrims were not included in the tradition until 1890 and the term Pilgrim was not even used until 1870. 

The Pilgrims “civilized” the Indians. In fact, the basic hygiene practiced by the Indians was far superior to the lack of hygiene of the European settlers. Europeans rarely bathed, believing it was unhealthy, and they rarely removed all of their clothes because they were so modest. The Indians, on the other hand, were a remarkably healthy people in part because of their hygienic practices. Tragically, this good health was their undoing as their bodies were unable to fight off the diseases and microbes that were brought over by Europeans and Africans. The plague that ensued (which some have called unpremeditated biological warfare) nearly wiped out the native populations and ensured that the European settlers had no real threat from Indians. Estimates of the native population of the United States and Canada before the Pilgrims arrived are around ten to twenty million. Without the plague, settling the U.S. would have been extremely difficult. Most of us have no knowledge of the plague and suffer from what Loewen calls collective amnesia

Interestingly, the Pilgrims believed that they were unaffected by the plague that wiped out the Indians because God was on their side and not on the side of the Indians. That the Pilgrims invoked God as the reason for their survival makes the story of the plague a perfect example of ethnocentrism. Loewen writes: “Thanksgiving is the occasion on which we give thanks to God as a nation for the blessings that He hath bestowed upon us. More than any other celebration, more even than such overtly patriotic holidays as Independence Day and Memorial Day, Thanksgiving celebrates our ethnocentrism. After all, if our culture has God on its side, why should we consider other cultures seriously”?Tgiving

This notion that “we” advanced peoples provided for the Indians is not an innocent lie. It reemerges throughout our history to complicate race relations. We are told that white plantation owners furnished food and medical care for their slaves; yet, every bit of food, shelter, and clothing was raised, built, woven, or paid for by black labor. Today, most Americans believe that we are the most generous nation on earth. In reality, the net dollar flow from almost every Third World nation runs toward the United States.

Thinking sociologically, why do you think we use holidays to reaffirm these myths?

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