Thanksgiving is the most American of American holidays. A communal feast, celebrated in roughly the same way throughout the country, it should be a time for affirming our gratitude. We are not only grateful for the bountiful harvest but for being one people living in a great nation.
As I wrote those words I could not help but thinking that they will instantly identify me as a relic. Today, more and more people are dreading Thanksgiving. It seems no longer to be a ritual meal that brings us all together, that unites us and makes us one. Many of our fellow citizens are girding their loins, preparing to see the convivial and congenial dinner table descend into a raucous and dyspeptic exercise in political argument.
One suspects that it’s a new kind of diet. Turning Thanksgiving dinner into a cacophonous din is guaranteed to diminish your appetite.
Things have become so bad and so generalized that various organizations, from Vox.com to the Democratic National Committee to the Hillary Clinton campaign are putting out talking points that young people can use to debate their ignorant and superannuated elders. One caveat here: if you are a millennial and you rattle off DNC talking points at Thanksgiving dinner you will immediately affirm everyone’ caricature of millennials as opinionated boors.
Heather Wilhelm is correct to note that we no longer have social skills. We no longer know how to get along, even for the short time it takes to consume a communal feast. In the heat of a passionate argument over climate change, Islamophobia and Syrian immigrants, table manners will degenerate. How can you master the art of chewing with your mouth closed when you feel compelled to blurt out the definitive talking point about campus insurgencies? Then again, why did you we study all of that critical theory if not to replace table manners with a passionate commitment to big ideas?
Putting politics aside, just for an instant, one is painfully aware of the fact that many people believe that arguing is healthy. Many people believe that couples should engage in an occasional fight, as long as they fight fair. Many philosophically minded therapists even believe in the dialectic, in the clash of contrary opinions. They imagine that a synthesis will arise from the conflict between thesis and antithesis. They believe that it is unhealthy to restrain yourself, to bottle up emotions, to keep it under control. Thus, they want you to let it rip. They tell themselves that the full-throated expression of their opinions will naturally produce a new synthesis that will make everyone happy.
They ought to recall the Biblical injunction, from Luke, 11, 17:
Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth.
Abraham Lincoln said it a bit differently, but the thought is the same. There is no virtue in arguing and fighting over Thanksgiving. At times, argument is inevitable. At times, fighting is required. And yet, there is no superior virtue in turning even the most agreeable communal meals into a brawl.
The unfortunate point, Wilhelm argues, is that life has become so politicized that we no longer think it is even worth trying to get along with each other.
Wilhelm analyzes the problem:
Politics, for many, has morphed into personal identity. Just look at colleges today, where opposing political sentiments or offensive statements can make students collapse like panicked, half-hearted origami. And hey, it makes sense: If politics is the be-all and end-all of life, and you honestly believe we can build a utopia buttressed by bureaucratic control, your personal worth, by logical extension, is ultimately based upon your political beliefs. No offense is too petty to let stand; no Thanksgiving dinner can be left in peace.
One is reminded of another Biblical verse: “vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
There is something monumentally vain and exhibitionistic about displaying one’s ill-informed opinions at the dinner table. And yet, if the nation’s political and cultural debates are being led by Leonardo di Caprio and Amy Schumer, why shouldn’t everyone believe that he has a constitutional right to ruin Thanksgiving dinner by expressing his feelings, tactlessly and inconsiderately.
How does it happen that everything has become politics? How does it happen that we have become so politicized that we identify, not as Americans, but as Republicans and Democrats? Why are we more loyal to our political party than we are to the nation? Doesn’t politicized identity look like a symptom of an absence of patriotism? People no longer believe in America; they belong to factions. They do not believe in e pluribus unum, out of many, one; but believe in multiculturalism, out of one, many.
Worse yet, we no longer have a set of rules that define good behavior and set standards toward which we should aspire. Unfortunately, we tossed out all the rules of good behavior when we tossed out religion, when we replaced it with science.
However much you love science, there is no such thing, David Hume wrote around 250 years ago, as a science of moral principles. Science tells us what is; ethics tells us what we should or should not do. The two do not meet. Without religion, without a moral foundation in texts that are taken to be sacred we have made a fetish of dissension.
In the absence of patriotism and in the absence of Judeo-Christian values we have become cult followers. The cults might have involve political parties or they might make us belong to movements like psychoanalysis and Marxism and scientology.
Without religion, people do not take seriously the injunction to love their neighbor, to bless those who curse them, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If they did there were be fewer arguments and fewer fights over Thanksgiving dinner.
For many of those who dread a politicized holiday, today’s Thanksgiving dinner is merely a prelude to what really matters: football.