Thanksgiving at the End of the Empire

Thanksgiving at the End of the Empire

Originally published at Substack, 11/22/2020

The Story behind Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving Picture
Cropped section of Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want”

I made a cheeky Twitter post the other day about Thanksgiving being the worst of all the holidays, and hoo boy! Someone with a huge following chimed in to tell me how wrong I was, which sent my tweet out into a pool of people I don’t usually interact with (the only reason I’m still on Twitter is because I have it pretty buttoned down). People were in their feelings. They were offended that I find Thanksgiving tiresome, and find the food even worse. I wound up having to mute the post because really, who has the time?

Those of you who know me personally know that my childhood was something of a shit show — toddler brother dead from cancer in 1972; Dad left for another woman, then promptly went belly up financially; Mom was a depressive before the baby died and well, things didn’t get better. So I didn’t have a childhood full of memories of Thanksgivings with some grandmother bearing trays of rolls fresh from the oven (mine hated cooking and preferred to ride her horse). Thanksgiving was an annual experience in orphanhood.

Not that there weren’t some good ones. There were. But mostly I remember being dragged off to a stranger’s suburban house, where we’d have to watch a lot of television, before eating a gigantic bland meal at 2 in the afternoon. Or rather, my anorexic mother would push food around her plate, while giving us the stink eye to eat up so we looked like good guests.

That many on the right are claiming there’s a new “War on Thanksgiving” in response to Very Sensible People pointing out that an entire nation traveling to see their at-risk parents and grandparents, then returning to their communities is well, a blueprint for making a terrible pandemic even worse, seems indicative to me of the kind of denial you see when a loved one is about to hit rock bottom. Think Amy Winehouse, singing about how she won’t go to rehab. The shouting and driving around in truck caravans with Trump flags, and yelling about how no one’s going to take away “our” Thanksgiving and carrying on, it all looks to me like a group of people who know, in their hearts, that they’ve been taking more than their share for centuries but fully intend to keep doing it. Anyone who has lived with an addict knows you can’t make them stop.

At the 1992 UN Climate Conference in Rio, George H.W. Bush famously declared that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” And the GOP has pretty much stuck to that stance for white people ever since. Meanwhile, the climate has continued to heat up, storms have gotten worse, and we’re now facing a changed world in which everything in the western US burns up every summer, whole subdivisions and parks and forests are just gone. And somehow, we don’t … do anything? We don’t even really mention it. There are thousands of people from California all the way up to here, the Bozeman/Livingston area who have no homes this Thanksgiving. Hurricanes are worse and more numerous, and the party of No Change has put a guy in power who thinks chucking rolls of paper towels at US citizens who have lost everything is an appropriate response. Here in Montana we’ve been inundated this summer by white flight folks buying houses sight unseen, driving up the cost of housing, and pretty much tanking Montana’s reputation as a politically “purple” state. They’ve also driven up our COVID numbers dramatically.

And now it’s Thanksgiving — a corporate holiday if there every was one, where everyone feels they need to rush home, buy a bird that’s been genetically engineered to grow a truly-American sized breast of dry white meat and then overcook it for a crowd. That green bean casserole you love? Invented by the Campbell’s soup company in the 50s, another era when America wanted to see itself as a wholesome nation of white people whose tables are laden with abundance. That famous Norman Rockwell print? Propaganda. Cranberry sauce in a can? You can thank Ocean Spray (although cranberry sauce is the best part of the meal). And what’s the deal with mashed potatoes? People act every year as though mashed potatoes is some exotic dish that’s tricky to make. Folks, I live with a potato guy. We have mashed potatoes a couple of times a week. They’re no big deal.

Thanksgiving is the most corporate of our holidays — from the food to the mandatory college football where America watches indentured black men play a dangerous game in exchange for an education they’re not actually allowed to pursue (see my friend Elwood Reid’s terrific novel If I Don’t Six). There’s nothing authentic about Thanksgiving. There are no organic traditions — even if you do love your Aunt Whatsit’s Pie.

So it seems somehow fitting that here in the End Times of the American Empire, a nation of idiots are getting on planes, or driving across country, in order to infect their at-risk family members with a virus they’ve decided not to “believe” in. They don’t believe in climate change either, but like the virus, it doesn’t care. They’re certainly proving Doris Lessing right when she noted that sentimentality and violence are flip sides of the same coin.

Things are changing. People are going to have to change their lives. In my kinder moments I can see how terrified all these people acting out are, but at this point, I don’t really care. Once they’ve tipped their hand and shown us that they’re willing to take all of us down with them, I’m done worrying about their feelings.

I voted for Biden because it was better than fascism. And while it is, I just hope the party pulls its head out of its ass and tries, for once, to make the world better. I fear, this Thanksgiving that as they have every time before, they’ll just return us to the status quo, where we pretend the corporations have our best interests in heart, where the best we can hope for is an organic can of jellied cranberry sauce on our table.

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