Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. New Left Project’s Alex Doherty talked to him about Thanksgiving, the murder of indigenous people and the theft of their land by European colonialists.

You choose not to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday and you have urged other Americans to do the same. Can you explain why you oppose this celebration?

For years I had felt uncomfortable at Thanksgiving Day dinners, not just because of the gluttonous consumption but because of the disjuncture between my evolving radical political ideas and the distortion of history embedded in the holiday. As it became increasingly difficult for me to be “normal” on that day, I struggled to understand why and what to do about it.

Here’s what I eventually came to understand: Thanksgiving Day is part of the national mythology that obscures the reality of the European/American genocide against indigenous people. White America tells a lovely story about the English Pilgrims—their search for freedom took them to Massachusetts, where aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims’ first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are accurate, but by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the genocidal project that opened up additional land to the English invaders. That was the beginning of the conquest of the entire continent, until 95 to 99 percent of American Indianshad been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations.

That is the American holocaust, and the Thanksgiving story wraps that holocaust in fantasies of innocence. Instead of celebrating a day of thanksgiving, we should be observing a day of atonement. In short, Thanksgiving Day is holocaust denial.

Defenders of Thanksgiving often argue that whatever the original meaning of the holiday for many it is now a rare chance to spend time with family and to show appreciation for what one has. What is your view?

Even in radical circles where that basic critique of the genocide is accepted, only a relatively small number of people argue that we should renounce the holiday and refuse to celebrate it. Most leftists who celebrate Thanksgiving claim that they can individually redefine the holiday in a politically progressive fashion in private, which is an illusory dodge: We don’t define holidays individually or privately—holidays are rooted in a collective, shared meaning. When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t magically redefine it in private. To pretend that is possible is intellectually dishonest, politically irresponsible, and morally bankrupt.

The argument about spending time with family is a rationalization. We can show appreciation for the material comforts we enjoy by coming to terms with the crimes that allowed us to have them, which can be done collectively. Families could spend time together reflecting on that history and the contemporary consequences. We could dump Thanksgiving Day for a Day of Atonement without losing that time together.

It is often argued that we cannot condemn the early American settlers by the standards of our own time. What do you make of that claim?

First, we should remember that not all people alive at that time endorsed genocide. Indigenous people fought wars, but they typically did not engage in the wholesale slaughter of anyone who got in their way. And within European society there were dissenting voices, such as Tom Paine, the most radically democratic of the “founding fathers” (and, hence, the founding father most ignored).

But that’s really not relevant to the question we face today. My critique of Thanksgiving is not aimed at condemning people in the past but dealing with history in the present. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we decide to make no moral judgment of the Europeans who committed or endorsed genocidal policies. The question today is whether we celebrate a holiday that covers up the genocide, whether we routinely lie about that history.

My focus is not on the standards of the past but our intellectual, political, and moral standards today. The crimes of the United States are, of course, not confined to centuries past. The genocide of indigenous people and African slavery are particularly gruesome aspects of U.S. history, but the large-scale assault on other peoples and cultures to expand the wealth of elites in the United States has continued up to this day. The U.S. wars of empire—covert and overt—in Latin America, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia have produced millions of corpses and left societies in ruins. If we can’t be honest about the past, we won’t be able to tell the truth about the present, which increases the likelihood of repeating the crimes in the future.

You have claimed that a close parallel to the conquest of America is the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. To many that will seem an outlandish and even an offensive comparison - can you explain why you think it is apt comparison?

I’m not comparing the events but rather the reaction to them. Here’s my argument I have made: Imagine that Germany had won World War II and that a Nazi regime endured for some decades, eventually giving way to a more liberal state with a softer version of German-supremacist ideology. Imagine that a century later, Germans celebrated a holiday based on a sanitized version of German/Jewish history that ignored that holocaust and the deep anti-Semitism of the culture. Would we not question the distortions woven into such a celebration and denounce such a holiday as grotesque?

Now, imagine that left/liberal Germans—those who were critical of the power structure that created that distorted history and who in other settings would challenge the political uses of those distortions—put aside their critique and celebrated the holiday with their fellow citizens, claiming that they could change the meaning of the holiday in private. Would we not question that claim?

Comparisons to the Nazis are routinely overused and typically hyperbolic, but this is directly analogous. When I offer this critique in left/liberal circles, some people acknowledge that the argument is valid but make it clear they will continue to celebrate Thanksgiving. Others get angry and accuse me of posturing. It’s not posturing, but rather a struggle to understand how to live in a culture that cannot tell the truth.

How significant is Thanksgiving - what are some of the negative effects of continuing to deny the American holocaust?

Thanksgiving is, by itself, not all that important. What does matter is the denial of history at the heart of Thanksgiving, which is commonplace in the United States, especially in education and media. After years of talking about this, I have come to the conclusion that the dominant culture cannot come to terms with two realities: Without the genocide of indigenous people, there would be no United States. Without African slavery, the United States would not have so quickly become the dominant industrial nation in the world. That means that the wealth concentrated in the United States is the direct result of two of the most grotesque crimes in recorded human history, perpetrated by the nation that claims to be the birthplace of modern democracy. The contradictions of this seem to be too much for the culture to absorb. My hope is that Thanksgiving could be a day set aside for facing that contradiction.

Surely leftists and radicals should give some priority to interventions where they face decent prospects of connecting with those beyond its ranks. However, it seems unlikely that a boycott of Thanksgiving would resonate with much of the American population and, moreover, it might throw up even more cultural barriers between those on the left and the rest of society. How do you respond to this line of thought?

I’m not arguing that the left should initiate a boycott of Thanksgiving aimed at the general public. I have for years wanted to hold an alternative Thanksgiving public event, but I haven’t done it precisely because I cannot figure out how to make it politically viable. So, for now, I’m only talking about the need for an honest conversation within the left and targeted outreach in our discussions with friends and family. In my experience, many people feel uncomfortable with the holiday, and we should not be afraid to talk about the sources of that discomfort. The discussion about Thanksgiving can be a route into a conversation about the importance of a left analysis more generally.

Links to past writing on the subject:
2005: http://www.alternet.org/story/28584/
2007: http://www.alternet.org/story/68170/why_we_shouldn%27t_celebrate_thanksgiving/
2009: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/11/15-2

Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online athttp://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go tohttp://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html




 
 
There is ample evidence that numerous global ecosystems are in a state of collapse. (www.dgfg.org)

There is clear substantiation of a global trend towards the elimination of basic human rights. (read the news)

There are innumerable examples of corporate freedom superseding that of the rest of humanity. (read the news!)

There are countless documented cases of government-corporate forces suppressing the speech and expression of their citizens in all corners of the globe, both first and third world. (Occupy movement, Russian Journalists, China, Syria, etc)

There hasn’t been an environmental campaign that has succeeded in healing the earth or stalling the destruction in the history of the movement. (go ahead, look for any reputable evidence that the earth is on the mend)

Chemicals are in your water.

Poisons are in your food.

Toxins are in a mother’s breast milk.

Insects, mammals, fish, shellfish, amphibians and many other animal kingdoms, in a cascading collapse.

Corporations are buying legislation.

Industries are circumventing what limited government regulation is in place.

Politicians from nearly all parties and nations are in the pocket of big business.

Industrial exploitation has run its disastrous course on this planet, gambling with our lives, abusing the basic values of decency.

Whether you disagree with one statement listed above, or even two, you can’t disagree with them all. What, then, is your limit? At what point do you stand your ground? At what point do you push back?

At what point do you put aside the rest of your cultural judgments and fight for the basic human value of life?

Is it when the planet ceases to be able to support life?

Is it when human rights are all but a dream documented in history books?

Is it when our every human function and decision is dictated by corporate regulation?

Is it when our thoughts are only expressed by permission of the state?

Is it when every last activist has been jailed, censored or killed?

Is it when every last environmental issue has been decided by the total destruction of the threatened?

Is it when water is a risk to all life on earth?

Is it when food has to be grown in a lab?

Is it when breastfeeding is considered child abuse?

Is it when 50% of the animals that live in your bioregion are dead? 80%? 90%? 100%?

What is your threshold between apathy and action?

Mine is when the life of my children, my family and the web of nature that I rely on and cherish is in jeopardy. My threshold is when the decisions of the few have threatened the survival of those without voice or power. Mine is when I am brought to tears at the prospects for the next 100 years on this earth.

My threshold is right here, right now.

Want to know what you can do? www.deepgreenresistance.org

Thoren Rogers serves on the Board of Fertile Ground Environmental Institute.

 
 
The movement du jour has sparked a familiar argument in the opposition: “you are benefiting from what you are fighting against.” Frankly, there is no direct argument against that statement. It’s a fact: the majority of the “occupiers” are sleeping in petroleum based tents made with corporate dollars, in petroleum based sleeping bags made in industrial plants and marching on shoes made of petroleum by the third world. While this might not be the case for every the protester, the majority of them are indeed clothed in the product of greed and capitalism.

So why don’t they live what they preach and wear only hemp and sustainably harvested wood clogs?

Good question.

Let’s work this argument over, shall we?

Instead of taking the statement head-on, because we can’t, we’ll make it irrelevant.

First, let’s take a very simple and brief historical look:

Let’s go back to the American abolitionist movement. There they were, former slaves and their many sympathizers, walking around the town denouncing the evils of “people selling people to people” and wearing shirts and dresses made of cotton harvested in the south by slaves. How hypocritical! You can imagine the argument was made by the slavery enthusiasts, because it was.

Now let’s jump ahead to the civil rights movement of the 60’s. Here’s a slightly different look at hypocrisy in a social movement: a sea of African Americans and their sympathizers walking through cities in upper middle class attire (the clothing of the oppressor) demanding their rights and justice. This time the “h” word is being called out by a faction of the movement that doesn’t like to see their black brothers and sisters assimilating into the white culture. We call this inner-movement feuding “horizontal hostility.”

Okay, let’s go way way back: Rome. In the Roman slave uprisings (there were quite a few), you had a very oppressed, very poor, very angry class who had been enslaved for generations by the Romans. They were fed up with the endless abuse and violence that trickled down through the society. This slave class had nothing- they weren’t allowed to own. Their every comfort came from their masters. So here’s what they had to do (and I don’t expect there was much moral debating): they bought, stole, altered and pillaged whatever they could of the master class’s products and services to nurture the success of the rebellion. Swords forged by slaves for the profit of the Romans and clothing made and imported from serfs and slaves would be utilized. Everything was the product of the dominant culture, they had no choice.

Jump to current day. The Occupy Movement is a multi-class movement being organized by the somewhat-affluent middle class. They are a class raised in privilege and for the most part disconnected with the earth. Give them some grace. They are a product of their upbringing.

Let’s make this argument break down as simple as it can be with several scenarios:

#1

I’m a protester and I’m camped out in Zuccotti Park. It’s 30 degrees and I’m sleeping in a sleeping bag that I’ve had for 10 years since before I became an enlightened anti corporate activist. Unfortunately, this sleeping bag is probably only good down to 40 degrees and my feet are freezing. I can either A) go home before I get pneumonia or B) use that $200 left from my parent’s last cash infusion to buy a better sleeping bag and stay at the park with my compatriots.

#2

I am a protester camped out in Zuccotti Park (again).  I’ve been here for three hours and I’m starting to feel the urge that comes naturally after eating a large bowl of curried lentils for lunch. Unfortunately, I have to make a choice: I can A) Pretend to be a customer at Starbucks and use their warm, clean restroom, B) find the nearest sustainably harvested wooden barrel (AKA  “a stink barrel) or C) utilize the Honeypot brand plastic outhouse rented for the Occupation to keep the rest of downtown New York from smelling like the cesspools of New Delhi slums.

So, there you go.

 From an internal perspective it can be beneficial to take advantage of the products of the dominant oppressor to maintain solidarity and strengthen the movement by your not-quite-as-suffering presence. An energetic and resilient voice is louder than a shivering, frostbitten, pneumonia stricken one.

From the point of view of the unaffiliated public, its far more effective as a public above ground movement to be perceived as hygienic, approachable and “like them” as opposed to a dirty, poorly clothed, diseased mob. It only works in the favor of the dominant culture to be seen as the weird minority.

I always remember this quote by Lierre Keith: “The task of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much personal integrity as possible; it is to dismantle those systems.”

Thoren Rogers serves on the Board of Fertile Ground Environmental Institute.