This morning, a Michigander friend of mine texted to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. Her husband and their roommate work at Walmart, and so I asked her whether they had to work today. It took my friend a few hours to respond, but I already knew the answer—as long as I’ve known them, they’ve both had to work on and around most major holidays. Their Thanksgiving has traditionally been on Thursday morning or Wednesday evening to make sure that they have some time to celebrate as a family before they get called in to work to get things ready for the capitalist rush that will come on Black Friday—and increasingly, on Thursday night.
I’ve been frustrated by this for years, but this year, I thought in particular about a recent passage I’d read from Leo Tolstoy, critiquing the upper class Christian who has convictions but fails to live up to them:
He knows that all the habits in which he is brought up, and the deprivation of which would be a torment for him, can be gratified only by the painful, often perilous labor of oppressed working men, that is, by the most palpable, coarse violation of those principles of Christianity, humanitarianism, justice, and even science (I mean the demands of political economy), which he professes. He professes the principles of brotherhood, humanitarianism, justice, science, and yet lives in such a way that he needs that oppression of the laboring men which he denies, and even in such a way that his whole life is an exploitation of this oppression, and not only does he live in this way, but also he directs his activity to the maintenance of this order of things, which is directly opposed to everything in which he believes.
We are all brothers, and yet every morning my brother or my sister carries out my chamberpot. We are all brothers, and I need every morning my cigar, sugar, a mirror, and so forth, objects in the manufacture of which my brothers and my sisters, who are my equals, have been losing their health, and I employ these articles and even demand them. We are all brothers, and I live by working in a bank, or in a business house, or a shop, in order to make all the wares which my brothers need more expensive for them.
An atheist, immigrant mentor of mine in grad school once described Thanksgiving as having the potential to be the best of the American holidays. If we can strip away the colonial origin story that we’ve given it, it wouldn’t be overtly religious and it wouldn’t be overtly nationalist. It could be a holiday for everyone—a weekend for taking some time off and celebrating widely accepted virtues, like gratitude. Yet, we’ve turned it into something colonial, crass, and commercial, replacing all of its potential with something worse.
Of course, I do my best to resist the commercial impulse to turn this into a weekend about great deals instead of gratitude, but I’m still the upper (middle) class Christian of Tolstoy’s critique. I’ve used this weekend’s deals to pick up some presents for Christmas, I’m hoping to hit up a used book store tomorrow, and my relaxing Thursday and Friday off depend on other people showing up and doing the work that I don’t want to this weekend.
Earlier today, I texted a friend to explain that:
I want to do more with my privilege while giving myself grace enough to understand that it’s impossible to disentangle oneself from all complicity.
That conversation wasn’t about Thanksgiving (my friend is Norwegian and living in Norway), but this seems like as good a weekend as any to start putting that into practice.
You can click on the
< button in the top-right of your browser window to read and write comments on this post with Hypothesis. You can read more about how I use this software here.
Any Webmentions will also be displayed below: