The culture war doesn’t take Thanksgiving week off, and its two main participants aren’t big on giving thanks, anyway.
The illiberal left wants to radically transform an inherently evil America that was founded on slavery and colonialism. The post-liberal right wants to forfeit the idea of liberal democracy, contending that modern America is weak, secular, and decadent.
Let’s start with the left. On Tuesday, the Women’s March issued an apology for sending out an email noting that their average donation this week had been $14.92. “It was an oversight on our part to not make the connection to a year of colonization, conquest, and genocide for Indigenous people, especially before Thanksgiving,” they said. This is stupidity that defies satire.
Meanwhile, MSNBC recently invited writer Gyasi Ross to talk about the “mythology” of Thanksgiving. “Instead of bringing stuffing and biscuits, those settlers brought genocide and violence,” he said. “That genocide and violence is still on the menu as state-sponsored violence against Native and Black Americans is commonplace. And violent private white supremacy is celebrated and subsidized.”
I get it! I get it! America sucks. And you need to be constantly reminded of that. We can’t possibly have a day where we put aside the culture wars and just celebrate the blessings we have been given, right? Don’t even think about celebrating Columbus Day, President’s Day, or Thanksgiving Day without a proper finger-wagging lecture, just to make sure any lingering patriotism is replaced by guilt and shame. Enjoy your stuffing, you white supremacist scumbags!
The Rosses of the world don’t want you to celebrate America’s history or traditions because the whole damn thing is tainted and conceived in sin. The National Broadcasting Company apparently endorses this worldview, since MSNBC aired this segment and proudly tweeted about it.
A good argument could be made that few Americans gathering to give thanks to the Almighty for their blessings are thinking primarily about Pilgrims and Native Americans. But even to the degree that the first Thanksgiving has become embedded in the American psyche, things are (as usual) more complicated.
Here’s a short summation of what we know. In 1620, a group of English settlers known as the Pilgrims made an arduous journey across the Atlantic. In 1621, they signed a peace treaty with the Indigenous people living in the area, the Wampanoag Confederacy, that was honored by both sides for fifty years. After signing the treaty, Native Americans taught the settlers about how to fertilize the soil for growing crops, and also gave them hunting and fishing tips. This was vital to the Plymouth colony’s survival (according to the History channel, by spring 1621, “roughly half of the Mayflower’s original passengers had died in their new home”). Later that year, there was a Thanksgiving feast with the Wampanoags to celebrate their first autumn harvest. This became known as the first Thanksgiving. It’s a true story that offers us hope, and one that almost everyone can be proud of celebrating.
Of course, there’s a larger story. There’s the story of Europeans who arrived before the Pilgrims in 1620. And there’s the story of how the treaty broke down when new arrivals of Europeans and subsequent generations of Indigenous people clashed, with provocations and atrocities being committed on both sides. And later, there’s the story of what basically constitutes a horrific genocide of Native Americans during America’s westward expansion.
And then, there’s the even larger story. The story of how Abraham Lincoln decided to declare a national day of thanksgiving during the Civil War, and how the union he helped preserve would later free the world from Nazi and Soviet domination, thus bringing more freedom and prosperity to more people than any force in the history of the world.
We should know the whole story, but which story defines us as a nation?
Here’s the problem. I’m not sure a country that doesn’t believe in its own noble narrative can (or should) survive. I’m not sure a nation that views its legacy as that of shameful and bloodthirsty oppressors, conceived in sin (not liberty, as Lincoln declared), can prevail over competing value systems.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Every nation has done horrific things. But nations like China—which is currently committing what many believe to be genocide against the Uyghurs—suffer no such identity crisis. And few progressives are as outraged by the atrocities currently being committed against ethnic minorities, gays, and women by the Chinese Communists, the Taliban, or anyone else. Progressives should consider that their constant undermining of America might foster the rise of some regime like China that actually ends up ruling much of the world.
Would the world really be better off if China’s values, not ours, became dominant?
What’s even sadder, though, is that the blame-America-first fixation is no longer the sole province of the left in America. An increasing number of voices on the right have given up on the American experiment, suggesting that the Founders’ vision was either inherently flawed or corrupted along the way. Some on the post-liberal right even pine for monarchy and serfdom as a supposedly superior (and more romantic) option. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes, “Liberal ideals of individual rights, separation of church and state, and free markets have, in their view, created a society ‘ever more solitary, ever more detached from ourselves, from our families, from our countries, and our God.’”
It could be argued that the reason this is happening on both the left and the right is that we are not thankful—we are not grateful—for the blessings of liberty and modernity. Empirically speaking, there’s no better time or place to be alive than in 21st century America. We are freer, safer, and healthier than any people in the history of the world. And ironically, this gives us more time to dwell on how horrible we are and how bad we have it.
But while this is a bipartisan lament, the right’s abandonment of Thanksgiving is arguably more concerning, because defending patriotism, tradition, and, yes, thanksgiving, are primary functions of conservatism. “To my mind, conservatism is gratitude, says conservative intellectual Yuval Levin. “Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.”
“You need both,” Levin concedes. “But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.”
A healthy country is transparent about its past sins. We should not present a solely sanitized version of history. But we also must be proud of our country and believe that we are a force for good, because it happens to be true—and because we can then strive to live up to that truth.
When more Americans believe the nation is defined by its sins rather than its beneficence—as I fear is happening now—it seems to me that our goose (er, turkey) is cooked.