Rejecting Thanksgiving?

There are many reasons to reject Thanksgiving.  It is a holiday that celebrates the genocide carried out against native populations by encouraging the perpetrators of that genocide to enthusiastically gorge themselves on the slaughtered remains of a whole new set of victims.  The systematic slaughter of animals differs from genocide only in that it lacks the goal of total extermination; instead the goal is for a never ending supply of bodies and fluids.  Indeed, it is genocide without end.

Furthermore, Thanksgiving has become the starting gun marking the so-called holiday season, also known as the shopping season.  It is a holiday that is putatively about being thankful and appreciative which concludes with people being trampled to death outside Wal-Mart by shoppers who have been convinced that their adequacy as parents hinges on their ability to secure whatever toy happens to be trending.

Consequently, calls to reject Thanksgiving are commonplace amongst the subset of the population that objects to genocide, animal sacrifice, and/or the mass frenzy of consumerism.

But calling on people to simply reject a firmly established holiday is quite difficult and perhaps somewhat unclear.  Is the idea to treat the day that Thanksgiving happens to fall on as a typical day which might include going to work, eating an average meal, not travelling or visiting family, not engaging in whatever benign traditions one may have grown accustomed to?  I for example would likely have to refrain from playing “Alice Restaurant” and donning my (now stained and tattered) “This Dump is Closed on Thanksgiving” t-shirt.  Does singing a bar of Alice’s Restaurant constitute tacit support for the atrocities at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday?

Alternatively, is the call to reject or boycott Thanksgiving more accurately (or if not more accurately, simply preferably) understood as a call to re-invent or transform Thanksgiving?  I would suspect that it would be more feasible to transform a holiday than to simply wipe it off the calendar.  I would suspect that it would be impossible for the mass of people currently living in the United States not to ascribe some significance to the end of November, to look at a calendar and not think: “Thanksgiving”.  It is more likely—and more rewarding—to reinvent, rehabilitate, or possibly just co-opt the holiday.

Admittedly, this is far from an original idea.  Many Native Americans have treated the holiday as a Day of Mourning.  I would like to see this idea spread further.  It was introduced as an opportunity to reflect on the violent and genocidal European conquest of this continent but could easily be extended to include the animal populations that have been removed from the land as well.

Likewise, vegans and animal advocates regularly circulate animal-free menus that mimic a traditional Thanksgiving feast.  And I am aware of one animal advocate who has recommended–similar to a Day of Mourning–that a Thanksgiving day fast would be a most appropriate response.  Is a fast a boycott or simply a different way of investing the day with significance and meaning?

In any case, we are a society that is desperately in need of holidays and so we should probably be reluctant to simply give them up.  In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, she reports that “[i]n fifteenth century France…one our of every four days of the year was an official holiday of some sort, usually dedicated to a mix of religious ceremonies, and more or less unsanctioned carryings-on.”  In comparison, our calendar looks quite austere.

But we need holidays that bring us closer to our espoused values, which serve as reminders of what we have genuinely deemed to be important and opportunities to reflect, holidays that pause rather than stimulate business cycles, which offer us the chance to experience a range of emotions from mourning, when appropriate, to joy.  We lack genuine holidays; we now have only sales pitches and endzone dances.Day of Mourning

Advertisements

Hymns to Earthworms and Robot Suicides

opb opal whiteley

Opal Whiteley’s childhood diary is a magical document.  It’s full of extravagantly named animals such as Peter Paul Reubens (a pig), Brave Horatius (a dog), Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus (a woodrat) and Felix Mendhelssohn (a mouse).  In the diary, Opal relays her experiences as a child in a logging camp near Cottage Grove, Oregon with these animal friends as well as plant friends, tree friends, and many others.  It is an enchanted world that few of her contemporaries—young or old—perceived.

The authenticity of the diary has been questioned as it is difficult to imagine a six-year old composing it.  I am happy to set the controversy as to its authorship aside and to glean what I can from it regardless of whether it was written by a child or an adult.

Consider the following passages for a sense of Opal’s rich world:

“Now are come the days of the brown leaves. They fall from the trees; they flutter on the ground. When the brown leaves flutter, they are saying little things. I hear them tell of their borning days, when they did come into the world as leaves…They told how they were a part of earth and air…In the gray days of winter they go back to the earth again.” (138)

“I watched the raindrops in the brook going on and on. When I grow up, I am going to write a book about a raindrop’s journey.” (136)

“Most grownups don’t hear them at all. I see them walk right by in a hurry, and all the time, the lichen folk are saying things; and the things they say are their thoughts about the gladness of a winter day. I put my ear close to the rocks, and I listen. That is how I do hear what they are saying.”

“More fir trees of great tallness was on either side of the road—they did stretch out their great arms to welcome us. I so do love trees. I have thinks I was once a tree, growing in the forest. Now all trees are my brothers.” (181)

As an adult, Whiteley attended the University of Oregon.  Older but no less eccentric, Whitely was purportedly seen by the wife of the university president stooped over singing hymns to the resident earthworms.

*****

In sharp contrast is a recent news story that reports on what is described as the first documented robot suicide.  A “rogue Roomba” inexplicably turned itself on, rolled onto a kitchen hot plate, and then was burnt—some might say—to death.

Some news stories even included speculation that being overworked prompted the suicide.

The owner of the Roomba is considering suing the manufacturer so apparently, the “rogue Roomba” isn’t being singled out as the sole responsible party.

*****

Almost anything can seem plausible given the right background assumptions; the most rigorous logic can support the most fanciful conclusion provided it is derived from equally fanciful premises.  One’s worldview can make certain claims seem more or less plausible: worthy of genuine consideration or not worthy of a second thought.  Opal Whiteley regularly had conversations with pigs, horses, and mice and counted them amongst her dearest friends; she eavesdropped on leaves as they conversed with the wind.  She wondered about what potatoes saw when they were in the ground.

Opal was born in 1897 with the diary allegedy being composed in approximately 1904 and published in 1920.  The robot suicide story is from this month.  In the present, the robot suicide may seem to be the more reasonable of the two stories, at least to many.

Opal’s worldview is quite foreign to most people; her peculiar claims are not likely to get widespread consideration beyond possibly their poetic merit.  But perhaps it would be prudent to consider the worldview that is currently taking shape which allows its adherents to perceive a household accident as a “robot suicide”.   Opal Whiteley’s background assumption when singing to an earthworm is that the earthworm was “a creature of God” and thus worthy of respect and perhaps, in some sense, an equal.  What is the background assumption behind news of a robot suicide?  Is this any less peculiar than listening to the wind or considering what life means to an earthworm?

The tone of the newspaper headlines on the robot suicide is seemingly somewhere in between a joke and complete sincerity.  No one is mourning this suicide as they would other more conventional suicides.  But the headlines may be a cultural exercise in trying out new ways of speaking and perceiving; getting used to the idea that a robot might be capable of something so profound; that the robot is, in some sense, an equal.  Between talking leaves and rogue Roombas, which is the more fantastic story?

For myself, I will more readily cup my ear, lean close to a rock, and listen for the voices of the “lichen folk” than to humor the idea of robot suicides.  For what it’s worth, a great many of Opal’s diary entries conclude with sentiments such as, “This is very wonderful world to live in.”  Furthemore, biographer Benjamin Hoff writes that “Opal Whiteley did not merely care for the world; she was in love with it.” [emphasis in original].   Such a love is quite possibly a prerequisite for adequately addressing the ecological crisis we face.

The alternative is a world where even the machines are becoming suicidal and looking for a way out.

opal whiteley mural

Opal Whiteley mural in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Instead of Learning to Live We are Learning to Die

U.S. presidents may brazenly insist that the American way of life is not negotiable but Nature is not asking to negotiate; our willingness to change light bulbs and drive new cars would certainly not appease her anyway.  We are not really even negotiating in good faith; these things are gestures more than concessions.

In the stages of grief, we are seemingly somewhere between bargaining and depression; very few are still clinging to full-fledged denial and very few have reached the plane of acceptance.  Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall…and in the New York Times as well: this civilization is dead.

In an editorial titled “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene,” Roy Scranton writes:

Many thinkers…have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

He also writes:

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. 

The truth is that things are both more and less hopeful than Roy Scranton suggests.  We still do have to learn how to die as individuals, to cultivate healthier attitudes toward death, to learn new ways of coping with loss on a grand scale.  Civilization has allowed the human population to swell to wildly unsustainable numbers and to densely populate inherently dangerous terrain.  To use the word “invasive” would not do the situation justice.  Natural disasters take on an unnatrual scale when they collide with mass society.  We are building on the sand and are shocked when the tide comes in.

Climate change fueled disasters kill vast numbers but each person dies an individual death: it may be trapped in an attic with water levels climbing the stairs, unable to scratch through the roof to the open air above or it may be in a nursing home without power succumbing to the latest heat wave.  Less spectacularly, death may come after working in the mines seeking out the rare earth metals necessary for smart phones and solar panels.  Like nonhuman animals going to slaughter, the numbers are at times so vast as to overshadow the fact that each death is its own tragedy.  No matter how long the kill line is; it’s a horrifyingly novel experience for each particular individual.

Ten thousand deaths in the Philippines boggles the mind not equipped to process such numbers; in many ways the outpouring of grief after the Boston Marathon bombing seemed greater, perhaps simply because the numbers were smaller and more readily understandable.  It is difficult to meaningfully grieve for 10,000.

Fortunately, learning to die as a civilization is not nearly so tragic.  It is enormously difficult but not tragic.  It is indistinguishable from learning to live.  It is a metaphorical death similar to the rites of passage in an individual life; it is moving on to something greater even if the transition is uncomfortable.  If I were writing Mr. Scranton’s editorial I would have titled it “Learning to Live” for we know all too well how to be dead, we’ve been dead for a very long time now.  It may be why zombies are currently so popular: it is difficult to understand how we can be dead and yet continue to kill.

Civilization is dead; we just have yet to put it in the ground and walk away.  Eventually the company of a corpse will be too much to bear and we’ll be forced to move on to something better.

(Credit to Bob Dylan for the title of this post)