Gongol.com Archives: November 2022

Brian Gongol

November 25, 2022

There are those who argue that Thanksgiving is an invalid or contaminated holiday because it can be seen as the fruit of moral shortcomings in American history. There are some who hold this view loosely and admit to thoughtfully struggling with the question, and there are others who hold it quite radically. ■ It's true that we would not have a Thanksgiving tradition without the literal practice of colonialism. The Pilgrims weren't invited to modern-day Massachusetts by the Wampanoag; they invited themselves and went on to cause the indigenous people tremendous grief. It is worth reckoning with the harm done over centuries. ■ But we moderns need to find ways to maintain the abstract practice of thankfulness even as we reconcile with very real harms. The Thanksgiving holiday is about an inheritance -- a cultural one, but an inheritance nonetheless. It is a morally sound practice to celebrate the inheritance of the imperfect-but-evolving American tradition and to give thanks for the human liberty and material abundance that emerge from it. In a world absent the America we know, it's not hard to imagine that totalitarians and fascists would have subjugated far more people for far longer. America is imperfect, but it has also been a bulwark against forces much worse. ■ Perhaps we would be a better country if, in addition to Thanksgiving, we separately observed a national day of atonement. There are shortcomings both in our past and in our present. It would be congruent with a healthy moral imagination to celebrate a day on which Americans would recognize failures, make amends, and commit to doing better in the coming year. ■ But just as in the Jewish tradition, wherein the day to mark the new year is closely related to, but separated from, a day to atone for one's failings, we need a day of Thanksgiving to stand on its own so that we focus upon the gratitude itself. ■ Gratitude is essential to having a balanced understanding of the world. So is a commitment to self-improvement. And though self-improvement is a fundamental aspect of the American character (see, for instance, the inclusion of an amendment process within the Constitution), perhaps we would be better off recognizing that need for reconciliation and growth with an explicit day. ■ But the need for that day should not displace celebrating a day of gratitude to something bigger than ourselves. Thanksgiving should make us better by reminding us that there are bigger things in the world than our own idle egos. If we need to make ourselves more righteous by tying it to a national day for peacemaking and reconciliation, then we ought to be open to that, too.

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