A cure worse than the disease

Since writing a post on my vegetarian ecofeminist blog about Thanksgiving,[1] I’ve been thinking that I did not address sufficiently the issue that Thanksgiving, of all holidays, is perhaps the only holiday that emphasizes community.

Yes, of course, as I noted, Thanksgiving is a very problematic holiday. It commemorates colonization and genocide. It also commemorates the consumption of our fellow sentient beings.[2] But its other meaning, the one I think more people think of when they contemplate Thanksgiving, is especially ironic as retailers have sought to extend “Black Friday” into Thanksgiving, compelling their employees to work on the one holiday that emphasizes non-market relationships.

BENJAMIN BARBER: Because things are flying off the shelves that we don’t want or need or even understand what they are, but we go on buying them. Because capitalism needs us to buy things way beyond the scope of our needs and wants to stay in business, Bill. That’s the bottom line. Capitalism is no longer manufacturing goods to meet real needs and human wants. It’s manufacturing needs to sell us all the goods it’s got to produce.

BILL MOYERS: But on the Friday after Thanksgiving, you know, go to the mall. Black Friday, the mall in Burlington, Vermont, where I happened to be, was just packed with people. I mean, they’re not in there buying nothing. You’re saying that they don’t need that stuff?

BENJAMIN BARBER: Sure don’t. And they don’t need to shop at 4:00 AM. I mean, I’ve been looking for signs saying, “Please open the stores at 4:00 AM so I can go shopping at 4:00 AM.” I don’t see any. I mean, that’s the stores’ ideas. That’s the marketers’ ideas. That’s the idea to create this hysteria about purchasing. About buying and selling. That makes Americans feel that if they’re not in the store at 4:00 AM or 2:00 AM, and some of them open at midnight Thursday. And now a whole bunch were open on Thanksgiving.[3]

Neoliberalism posits that the market is a solution not only for economic problems, but for non-economic problems as well.[4] The market is our new god, a jealous god that crowds out the very values that make us human. As Henry Giroux points out, our “society . . . only values ideas that serve the interests of the market and the powerful and rich,”[5] “there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good,” “subjects [are] defined exclusively by market-driven values and the prioritization of exchange values over public values,”[6] “the collective sense of ethical imagination and social responsibility toward those who are vulnerable or in need of care is now viewed as a scourge or pathology,” and “market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness, while giving millions to banks and the military” have been normalized.[7]

The ideological script is now familiar: there is no such thing as the common good; market values become the template for governing all of social life, not just the economy; a survival-of the fittest ethic now drives the stories we tell about ourselves; individual responsibility is promoted in order to tear up social solidarities; militaristic values trump democratic ideals; the welfare state is the arch enemy of freedom; private interests negate public values; consumerism becomes the only obligation of citizenship; law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and war becomes the all-embracing organizing principle for developing society and the economy.[8]

In deference to our new god neoliberalism, community—the idea of sharing, even, as a Portuguese-American family taught me decades ago, with a stranger—must by all means be quashed.

Figure 1. A cartoon in opposition to undocumented migrants. Gary Varvel, November 22, 2014, via Vox, fair use.
Figure 1. A cartoon in opposition to undocumented migrants. Gary Varvel, November 22, 2014, via Vox, fair use.

I am thinking of all this because of a cartoon published in and retracted by the Indianapolis Star (fig. 1). I’m not sure where I first saw it, but part of what prompts this post is that I found it in a highly critical Vox article. As Timothy Lee notes, it relies on stereotypical imagery and suggests that Barack Obama’s executive order on undocumented migrants will welcome more people across the border.[9]

But the larger problem with the cartoon is that it seems oblivious to the meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday. Remember, the classic Thanksgiving story is about Pilgrims — a.k.a. immigrants — who showed up on American shores uninvited, and in precarious economic circumstances. Thanksgiving is a celebration of the fact that the native-born Americans who lived in the area welcomed these newcomers, shared their food with them, and helped them make the transition to their new home.[10]

Lee overlooks the darker aspects of the holiday. But it is now apparent to me that “boycotting” Thanksgiving is a cure worse than the disease. To do so is to be complicit with the still-ascendant forces in our society that would banish community altogether in favor of a society reduced to market exchange.

As I noted in my original post, whites especially and meat-eaters have much to atone for.[11] In a conversation I’ve been involved in since, a vegan friend argued that her ancestors were Eastern European Jews who migrated in the early twentieth century. This is, indeed, a wrinkle: Jews, especially in Europe, have their own fraught history in which they were all too often subject to all manner of pogroms.[12] She therefore argues that she does not feel complicit in these crimes. And as a vegetarian ecofeminist who feels thoroughly thumped on by neoliberal values, in truth, I also share that feeling.

She and I share a lot less of what might be called “positive privilege,” that is, the benefits of colonization, broadly understood,[13] expressed in neoliberal terms as “prosperity,” a prosperity gained at the expense of others.[14] We probably do share, however, many more of the benefits of “negative privilege”: We are less often suspected by the police and less often discriminated against on account of our skin color. Ayn Rand aside,[15] it is rarely suggested that we “loved” or should love our masters[16] or that we were better off under slavery.[17] We have not been systematically deprived of our land and, really, of our sovereignty,[18] and then told to go “back” to “the” reservation. We are not sent to concentration camps because our heritage is that of an enemy.[19] We do not suffer the numerous disabilities that our society imposes on anyone whose skin color is other than white.[20] And so, I maintain that all of us whites in the United States, even Eastern European Jews, have much to atone for.

In my original post, I suggested that, in recognition of the value of community, we should perhaps share Thanksgiving with fellow vegetarian ecofeminists.[21] This arises from a recognition that many subaltern people continue to partake of oppression against non-human animals and that this consumption is uncomfortable for vegans and vegetarian ecofeminists. There remains a need, however, for us to reach out to all who are victims of oppression, the poor, people of color, people of non-Christian faiths, and undocumented migrants, explicitly because the vegetarian ecofeminist understanding is that these oppressions are all connected.[22] We must welcome them to our table, just as on that one Thanksgiving so many years ago, I was welcomed by that Portuguese-American family.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “A critical Thanksgiving,” So I’m Vegetarian Ecofeminist. Now What?, October 31, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=232
  2. [2]David Benfell, “A critical Thanksgiving,” So I’m Vegetarian Ecofeminist. Now What?, October 31, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=232
  3. [3]Bill Moyers, “Benjamin Barber on Capitalism and Democracy,” Bill Moyers Journal, December 21, 2007, http://billmoyers.com/content/benjamin-barber-on-capitalism-and-democracy/
  4. [4]Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberalism’s War on Democracy,” Truthout, April 26, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/23306-neoliberalisms-war-on-democracy; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).
  5. [5]Henry A Giroux, “Intellectuals as Subjects and Objects of Violence,” Truthout, September 10, 2013, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/18704-intellectuals-as-subjects-and-objects-of-violence
  6. [6]Henry Giroux, “Neoliberalism’s War Against the Radical Imagination,” Tikkun, February 11, 2014, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/neoliberalisms-war-against-the-radical-imagination-by-henry-giroux
  7. [7]Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability,” Truthout, April 8, 2014, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/22958-neoliberalism-and-the-machinery-of-disposability
  8. [8]Henry Giroux, “Neoliberalism’s War Against the Radical Imagination,” Tikkun, February 11, 2014, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/neoliberalisms-war-against-the-radical-imagination-by-henry-giroux
  9. [9]Timothy B. Lee, “This tone-deaf cartoonist forgets that Thanksgiving is about immigration,” Vox, November 22, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/11/22/7268597/this-tone-deaf-cartoonist-forgets-that-thanksgiving-is-about
  10. [10]Timothy B. Lee, “This tone-deaf cartoonist forgets that Thanksgiving is about immigration,” Vox, November 22, 2014, http://www.vox.com/2014/11/22/7268597/this-tone-deaf-cartoonist-forgets-that-thanksgiving-is-about
  11. [11]David Benfell, “A critical Thanksgiving,” So I’m Vegetarian Ecofeminist. Now What? October 31, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=232
  12. [12]Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew, trans. Elisabeth Abbott (1962; repr., New York: Viking, 1971).
  13. [13]Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  14. [14]Karl Marx, Wage Labour and Capital, ed. and trans. Frederich Engels, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/; Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  15. [15]Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957; repr., New York: Plume, 1999).
  16. [16]David Anderson, “Down Memory Lane: Nostalgia for the Old South in Post-Civil War Plantation Reminiscences,” Journal of Southern History 71, no. 1 (2005): 105-136.
  17. [17]Adam Nagourney, “A Defiant Rancher Savors the Audience That Rallied to His Side,” New York Times, April 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/24/us/politics/rancher-proudly-breaks-the-law-becoming-a-hero-in-the-west.html
  18. [18]Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, (New York: Henry Holt, 2001).
  19. [19]Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, rev. ed. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).
  20. [20]Ishmael Reed, ed., MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (New York: Penguin, 1998).
  21. [21]David Benfell, “A critical Thanksgiving,” So I’m Vegetarian Ecofeminist. Now What?, October 31, 2014, https://vegan.parts-unknown.org/?p=232
  22. [22]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.

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