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Some Vignettes for Thanksgiving

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What many Americans might find perplexing is that I have this affliction that is a result of knowledge. History, politics and government, social science, and more all in some way influence the way that I think about life. Psychologically, I don’t just go through the motions and engage in rituals or traditions just because that’s what other people do. I have opinions (which I believe many people do too). They are damn hard to suppress.

That said, this holiday I’m thankful for all the things that most people are thankful for. But, what I am not thankful for is a society that celebrates this holiday without regard for the history that is this holiday’s foundation. And, since it was this year that the people’s historian Howard Zinn died, I find it fitting to honor him by posting some excerpts from an NPR interview he did on November 27, 2003. In the interview, which was conducted by Tavis Smiley, he discussed major omissions in American history:

SMILEY: Let me talk about the American past and some of those omissions that you’ve talked about and written about specifically. Our time is limited. Lets first talk about the omissions relative to Native Americans. Can you first give us a snapshot of how the indigenous peoples of this part of the world have been portrayed historically?

Prof. ZINN: Well, first of all, the treatment of our history with the Indians, with the indigenous population, is a very, weak, inadequate treatment. I remember going to school and, you know, I would learn about the Indians who came to Thanksgiving dinner gratefully, and I would learn about Custer’s last stand, you know, I would learn about Sitting Bull. There are a few moments in Indian history we learn about.

What we didn’t learn about was the fact that the American colonists who came here from the beginning were invading Indian soil and driving the Indians out of their land and committing massacres in order to persuade the Indians that they had better move. And the history of the United States is a history of hundreds of little wars fought against the Indians, annihilating them, pushing them farther and farther and farther into a smaller and smaller piece of the country, and finally, in the late 19th century, sort of taking the Indians that were left and squeezing them onto reservations and controlling them. I mean, this is the history that is not told in most American textbooks.

The story that’s not told is the deceptions that were played on the Indians, the treaties that were made with them and treaties then broken by the American government. It’s important to know that because if you know that, then you will become aware that the American government can lie, it can deceive people, it can do it not only in relation to Native Americans, it can do it in relation to all of us.

Zinn was a man of conscience who understood the importance of history. He understood that the official story that American children learn in school (especially in relation to Thanksgiving) is quite often subjective, not objective. It celebrates what happened with Native Americans around Thanksgiving. As right wing author Laura Ingraham and other conservatives might say, it allows one to get away with not “blaming America.”

Nobody really wants to “blame America” or make America guilty. Those like Zinn and myself just want people to not whitewash history or fabricate a reality that is divorced from this nation’s real past. In order to do that, though, an American can’t rely on an American education, unfortunately. An American citizen has to independently seek out information in a library or get lost in a Google Search browsing writings about what really happened (hopefully looking at materials with some sources or citations that don’t just come from Human Events or Glenn Beck’s “Arguing with Idiots”).

There’s nothing wrong with Thanksgiving just being a ritual event for getting together with family and watching the Detroit Lions or Dallas Cowboys and getting out the ads for Black Friday to see what one is going to go buy tomorrow morning because they have to get gifts for Christmas (or gifts for themselves). There’s nothing wrong, really, with just looking forward to some Thanksgiving turkey and a holiday weekend away from the office or work (Americans are a hard-working people; the lower and middle classes are largely underpaid). But, well, actually, there is a problem if what you are doing to enjoy yourself is so unconscious that you aren’t even aware of how your celebration with family fits in to the world around you.

For example, remember this video? This is from two years ago. Sarah Palin did a press conference in Wasilla, Alaska, when she was pardoning a turkey. All would have been well except Palin stood in front of the very machine that was slaughtering another turkey while doing a press interview on the pardon. Those who tuned in were treated to a woman oblivious to the fact that what was being piped into American living rooms all over the country was in many respects quite gruesome.

Palin’s obliviousness could be considered a metaphor. Let’s face it America: all too often the majority of us are talking or moonlighting. There’s a focus on me, me, me and a tacit ignorance of what is happening in our surroundings. Proverbial turkeys are being slaughtered and those slaughtered turkeys really infuriate some in our country but mostly people all over the world that wonder why many can’t see what is happening.

Granted, slaughtering turkeys is no injustice. But, an American political leader who is incapable of properly creating a piece of Thanksgiving propaganda to boost an approval rating: that’s unjust.

If Americans could just give off the appearance that they were a people who were half a bubble off, things would be a lot better. But, Americans get angry when terror suspects get their day in court and “boo” proceedings that don’t allow evidence obtained by torture to factor into the verdict. Americans fling poop at Barack Obama for supposedly hurting the free market economy with an economic stimulus and auto bailouts that appear to have had little impact on the ability of corporations to make record profits. Americans cry out against “socialism” and entitlement programs but use unemployment benefits, Social Security and Medicare (of course, now that jobless benefits haven’t been extended they get to see what it’s like to really pull one’s self up by his or her own boot straps). A number of Americans seriously think they have a right to not believe in science, like the idea that climate change is seriously threatening the Earth; some of those cite the Bible as reason why they are certain humanity is not under a threat from global warming.

It’s Thanksgiving and I’m sure there are a number of people who are repulsed by the idea that I am so cynical and pessimistic about Americans. Some might even ask why I can’t be positive and thankful for what I got like other Americans and relax on this holiday. Positive thinking — in the face of all the evidence that lies before us as a people, I should just suspend my doubts and eat some turkey and mashed potatoes happily. I know friends and family would like that.

So, allow me to share with you two pieces of art that make me smile this holiday. I’ve always enjoyed them. First, I was driving home listening to my SIRIUS radio when I came into the middle of “Alice’s Restaurant” by Arlo Guthrie. But, this version wasn’t the original version. It was a 30th Anniversary version with a special segment of the song touching on Guthrie’s invitation to President Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration.

Here’s the part I really like:

“…the only reason I’m singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into/the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say “Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”.   And walk out.   You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him.   And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both f*ggots and they won’t take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an organization.   And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out.   And friends they may thinks it’s a movement”

The video has embedding turned off, but here’s a full version of the song for your enjoyment. This is Guthrie singing in 2005

And, finally, nothing is more heartwarming than John Hughes’ film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Few films continually capture my heart and make me laugh hysterically. The sentimental scenes where Dell Griffith (John Candy) is pouring his heart out to Neil Page (Steve Martin) make one understand that some people just need a person they can talk to or have listen to them. Sure, you might end up on a train that breaks down or a bus that doesn’t go far enough or in a rental car that eventually catches fire and is deemed unsafe for driving by a police officer that pulls you over but you know that you are likely to make a friend if you just give the person a chance.

Let the Thanksgiving holiday be about friends, family, and singing a bit of “Alice’s Restaurant” with a smile or grin on your face. Pile the food you are able to have, be thankful you have food to eat, think about the foodless families this holiday and perhaps commit to doing more to make this world a better place in December and the New Year.

(Also, if Uncle John tries to talk inflation with Glenn Beck tinfoil hat nonsense, don’t hesitate to shut Uncle John down with some, I don’t know, logic. Religion and politics are supposed to be off-limits at family events. Forget that and have a happy Thanksgiving.)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."