Happy Thanksgiving, America 2.0
As we celebrate another Thanksgiving, between the turkey and the stuffing and the cranberries and the pie, it is an appropriate time for reflection.
Thanks to countless films and television shows, Americans have come to understand that Thanksgiving means having to tolerate your extended family members for a few hours. For some it represents a lone annual occasion for parents and children, or siblings, to be in the same physical location.
If one judges by our cultural depictions of the holiday, there are no families left in this country who don’t roll their eyes, sigh in exasperation or argue loudly over the expansive holiday spreads. In the age of Trump, the squabbles are certain to be more fierce and unavoidable than ever before.
From what I understand of the rest of the world, where such a formal holiday rarely is celebrated, such familial dysfunction is not nearly as common. Respect for elders, for instance, is still strong in many cultures. In America, of course, the elderly are treated like trash, to be carted away to the curb when they are no longer useful. Nursing homes are universally understood to be the most sordid places in our horrific medical industrial complex. And they are incredibly expensive. And yet, the vast majority of people, if they live long enough, end their days in one, or in gentler named assisted living facilities or hospice. One wonders how old people were cared for, in the days before such institutions, and before Alzheimers became common.
At the other end of the age spectrum, I know too many young adults whose parents have discarded them like refuse, refusing to assist them financially or even give them shelter. In America 2.0, the bottom half of workers make less than $27,000 and have less than 1% of the collective wealth. My mother used to be fond of warning me, “It’s a cold world out there.” If she were alive today, she would have to come up with a much stronger adjective to describe the callousness and lack of empathy that permeates our crumbling society.
It’s fitting that America’s biggest tyrant, Abraham Lincoln, first proposed a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863, after a pivotal victory by the Union army during the war he waged so relentlessly. His official proclamation, like all of Lincoln’s writings, distorted a horrendous reality into often beautiful poetry.
While waxing over the wonderful bounties we all take for granted, Lincoln provided the following bit of political delusion: “In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict….”
As I document in my new book Crimes and Cover Ups in American Politics: 1776-1963, Lincoln was a noted nonbeliever in God. This, however, never stopped him from invoking the name of an Almighty he denied when it suited his political purposes. Thus, he expressed gratitude for “the gracious gifts of the Most High God….” and went on to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife…and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes….”
Dissecting these words of Lincoln is almost as mind-boggling as determining how he could boast, in what the court historians assure us was the greatest speech in the history of this country, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” when he was trying to prevent the seceded Southern states from doing that. What do we make of his reference to “peace has been preserved with all nations” in this proclamation? At that point, all of our leaders were still adhering to the advice given by George Washington in his Farewell Address, and to John Quincy Adams’ declaration that “America does no go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” America would be an ironclad “isolationist” nation until the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Analyzing this proclamation further, Lincoln’s note that “order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed” was especially laughable, in light of the untold thousands of political prisoners he locked up in the north, the hundreds of newspapers he shut down, and his unconstitutional suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. “Harmony” certainly didn’t prevail in those makeshift prisons; one of those imprisoned was Frank Key Howard, grandson of Francis Scott Key. In an incalculable irony, Howard was incarcerated in Fort McHenry, the very spot where his grandfather was inspired by the glorious flying flag to write The Star-Spangled Banner.
Lincoln’s concern for all those widows and orphans didn’t compel him to order bloodthirsty Union generals like Sherman and Sheridan to cease their unprecedented “scorched earth” campaign. It’s impossible to determine how many of those widows were raped by soldiers, who also plundered their remaining valuables, burned their crops and salted the earth behind them. As far as Lincoln imploring the “Almighty Hand” for anything, this flies in the face of his own, well-documented atheistic beliefs. His cold exploitation of a faithful, religious populace with these persistent, flowery references to an Almighty being he didn’t believe in himself goes beyond even what we see in the modern world of practical politics.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that the proclamation that gave birth to our annual Thanksgiving holiday was filled with the same kind of insincerity and cosmetic hypocrisy that all too often characterize the family gatherings it spawned. It is a special indictment of the modern American experience that so many seem to agonize over interacting with close blood relatives once every year.
It isn’t that Thanksgiving is markedly different in America 2.0. Certainly, there were family disagreements, and uncomfortable holiday gatherings in America 1.0. But I don’t think the dysfunction was as shockingly obvious, or public in nature. A facade of civility prevailed, even where genuine affection didn’t. A combination of cultural indoctrination into the curious concept that family reunions constitute a hardship, and the clash between oblivious Baby Boomers, grown up latchkey kids, and millenials reared in the age of social media, have changed the traditional nuclear family forever.
Siblings that haven’t spoken in decades. Parents alienated from adult children. Young adults encouraged by peer pressure, and the culture, to move as far from home as possible. In other words, to live as far from their parents as possible. Maybe I’m impossibly old-fashioned, but I think this is a very sad development.
So enjoy the gluttony. Watch the football games. Embrace in lukewarm hugs. And offer up thanks for the blessings we all enjoy. Once a year is better than never remembering.