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People in Turkey never eat Turkey on Thanksgiving Day, and hardly know that such a holiday exists unless they have spent time in the U.S. or have children living there. In contrast, this is almost the first time I have been in a foreign country on the day when this most distinctively American holiday is celebrated, although with analogues elsewhere, and always associated in the U.S. with a family meal featuring turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. It is not surprising that such a gathering of families is taking precedence over CDC health guidelines even as COVID spreads its deadly virus at an alarming, accelerating speed across the country. More even than Christmas or Easter, Thanksgiving has escaped from its religious origins of honoring God’s providential relations with human destiny and its pagan beginning in harvest festivals giving thanks for the bounty of nature that underpins human livelihood. Thanksgiving is a day when almost all Americans partake of a meal with those most cherished in their lives, and give little thought to its deeper roots.
Growing up in the middle of Manhattan, Thanksgiving was for me an innocent childhood experience, devoid its historical complexities and sometimes cloyingly sentimental, but with only the most superficial attention to its larger meaning as a giving of thanks by the early settlers for surviving their first winter, largely thanks to the foods of native Americans being cruelly displaced and forever deprived of their sovereign claims of nationhood, including their traditional modes of living on, for, and by the land. And in the Plymouth settlement in Massachusetts where Thanksgiving was intertwined with gross crimes against the Pequot Nation.
Perhaps, because outside my familiar setting, this Thanksgiving occasions more reflective thinking than ever before. The first impulse, is to feel ambivalent toward those Americans who risk their own health and that of others by traveling long distances to be together with their families. It makes the experience less routine, and expresses the values of living and loving as taking precedence over the risks of dying, or spreading disease. We also know from news reports that native American communities relegated to ‘reservations,’ even such relatively favored ones as the Navajo Nation, have more harshly borne the burdens of the COVID virus more than the white settler society that displaced and marginalized them over the course of recent centuries.
We can be especially thankful this Thanksgiving as we appear to be witnessing the bloody end game of the Trump White House even if we cannot be joyful about the prospect of a Biden presidency. Already we have grounds of concern given the new foreign policy team so far assembled whose roots and branches seem to be relics of the Cold War era, with dangerous intimations that China is being set up as the new Soviet Union. As well, not a whimper of criticism of Israel or even empathy for the Palestinian ordeal, and no clear sign of seeking normalcy in relations with Iran. We should not rest easy until the interventionists who made such a mess of foreign policy in country after country in the first twenty years of this century are discredited, making way for a new live and let live ethos that entrusts the future of sovereign states to the interplay of forces within countries, showing deference except where the UN decrees otherwise to the law, politics, and ethics of self-determination, finally honoring that most fundamental human right that encompasses all the others and is the common Article 1 of both the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. As most moralists, assuming a freedom from tribalist biases, will affirm, the place to begin with such moves toward peace and justice is with the long Palestinian struggle to give reality to their inalienable right as a people to self-determination, which probably means, given the unlawful moves of Israel over the decades, one democratic secular state for both peoples.
All in all, the world historical situation makes this Thanksgiving different, and more emotive, than any prior one during my lifetime, an occasion that justifies both remorse and rejoicing, as well as providing a reminder to continue the struggle for less remorse and more rejoicing. Our simple goal is to ready when the sun shines on Thanksgiving 2021 to greet the day with less ambivalance.