Oh, boy, I am about to bring it down.
I’m conflicted about Thanksgiving. Grateful, of course, for many of the people and things in my life—and trying to be cognizant of the luck that brought them to me.
That'd be the hardest thing for me to understand if I were religious, I think: why me? Religion is most damaging, I suspect, when it provides its adherents with unassailable confidence that their advantages, when they have them, are intentional, and that others’ misfortune is part of a plan that’s out of their control. Similarly, the religious downtrodden are also to believe that their misfortune is visited upon them by design, but that they just need to get through this trial and glory will be theirs. (Those are poles, of course, and I know that religious experience is a spectrum.)
So the religious powerful believe they are meant to be powerful, and they see any sharing of that power as a change to the natural order of things. The loss of that power—or of any part of it—is grounds for war and oppression.
I’m an atheist, and I like to think that the closest I get to a religious belief is “shit happens.” But seriously, who am I kidding? I believe I’m chosen, too. Mentally, I remind myself that it’s luck; that I was born white and male to literate parents with good jobs in a stable society etc etc etc. But you live a life like mine for 45 years—and yes, I’ve done some reasonably hard work in that time to maintain my advantages, but it’s work that was available to me because of my advantages—the mantra of “hey, it’s just luck and a little bit of work” starts to sound like reality.
Over time, “I’m lucky” can be just as insidious as “I’m chosen.”
You start to believe that because you’re lucky, things are supposed to be a certain way for you. You are unsurprised by others’ misfortune, even when you feel terrible about it. “Not lucky,” you sort-of think, and you feel sympathy. You donate to charities that purport to help certain categories of unlucky people. You do things to maintain your luck, like lose weight and get checkups and check out crime stats for potential homes, so it feels a little more earned. Even though, yeah, you have a measure of control over those things because of privilege. Privilege tends to be invisible when you have it. (As the young fish said, “what the fuck is water?”)
Like “I’m chosen,” “I’m lucky” can also provide great cover for those moments of entitlement used to justify rule-breaking, selfishness, unkindness.
People call this conflict I’m feeling “Privilege Guilt,” and seek to explain it away with that, kind of dismissively, like its cousin Liberal White Guilt. I suppose I feel sort of guilty—more for the bad things I’ve done (mostly when much younger) under cover of the unassailable confidence bestowed by “I’m lucky” than just for being lucky and privileged—but it’s more like awareness. I know I’m privileged by my gender, orientation, skin color and economic starting point, and I know it’s unfair, and it’s increasingly hard to swim ignorantly in that stream. But to acknowledge it reads like guilt to those who just don’t see it. Because it challenges them to acknowledge something they don’t want to, and what wells up in them is that same defensive anger that anyone feels at a challenge to their deep-seated worldview. I, a non-religious, privileged person that has done okay thinking “I’m lucky” (and therefore unconsciously feeling unaccountable for others’ misfortune), feel that defensive anger when I feel challenged about my privilege—“you can’t mean ME, of course; I’m well aware of how lucky I am, I’m regretful over past unkindnesses that I got away with because of privilege, and I donate and march over injustice and post correctly on social media. So take your criticism someplace else.”
It’s almost the opposite of guilt, really. It’s justification. It’s like, I have already done my sacrifices to awareness of my privilege, so look elsewhere for sinners. I am not guilty. But I don’t know, maybe it’s just awareness.
Anyway, that brings me to Thanksgiving, and finally to Ferguson and Newburgh and White Plains and New York City, and to Cleveland and video games and to Occupy—all places that matter to me peripherally or centrally—and all places where my kind have been sticking it to others, from casual disrespect through threats and intimidation to theft, systemic armed oppression and murder, for a long time.
As an atheist, Thanksgiving has always felt like “Whew!” as opposed to “thank you.” And for a time it’s felt like a somewhat tempered “whew,” like “whew, but…” And now, this morning, it feels more like anger. Anger that’s equally split between me and The System.
For instance, in addition to my unpopular atheism, I’m also not much of a tv guy. But I’m at my family’s place and there are lots of kids around and we had the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on this morning. My friend tweeted “Looks like the theme of this parade is ‘EVERYTHING IN THIS COUNTRY IS FINE.’” He’s right, and watching the parade pisses me off. The willful forced grin of complicity. Looking at Facebook and seeing people sharing racist diatribes on stars-and-stripes backgrounds pisses me off. (Nothing you’ve posted, if you’re reading this on FB.) Reading the resentment of others’ suffering and desperation. Reading others' fear of non-whites or non-males encroaching on spaces that people took to be their own, unchallengeable, realms.
So I’m angry, and yeah, maybe a little guilty. Because I’m still lucky! Because I’m home amid a large, loving family, on my way to my aunt and uncle’s house where there are even more of this far-flung tribe, and if someone came over and said “you know this is all stolen” I’d be like “you can’t mean THIS turkey, of course; I’m well aware of how lucky I am, I’m regretful over past unkindnesses that I got away with because of privilege, and I donate and march over injustice and post correctly on social media. So take your criticism someplace else. I have already done my sacrifices to awareness of my privilege, so look elsewhere for sinners. We are not guilty.”
But still: a lot of it IS stolen. Not BY ME, mostly. But I’m in possession of stolen property. I’m angry at myself because I don’t want to give it back. I’m angry at the System because it’s shouting “EVERYTHING IS FINE, YOUR PRIVILEGE IS OKAY. Keep that stuff, don’t you like nice stuff?” I’m angry at people who don’t agree with me that we haven’t earned everything we’ve got.
Kinda tough to formulate a sentimental but self-deprecatingly humorous Thanksgiving post when reflection on the things for which I’m grateful automatically reminds me of the 1:1 opposite-day loss experienced by those from whom those same things have been stolen and are still being stolen. I’m grateful/lucky to be with my family on Thanksgiving: protestors in LA are jailed for Thanksgiving if they can’t come up with $500 bail. I’m grateful/lucky to be with my kids: how many black families have an empty seat at their table? Etc, etc, etc.
So here are some drafts: “If you recently compared mourners, protestors, or rioters to animals, I hope you die under a pile of toaster ovens this Friday.” “I’m considering shopping today as much as possible, out of spite.” “Let’s all enjoy our turkey but” —and can’t think of a closer. Those are NOT Thanksgiving winners.
That’s why, if you’re still reading, you’re reading this. This is my attempt. The fact that I am struggling to express gratitude amidst the bounty and relative security in which I dwell is ludicrous. Yet, there it is. Maybe it’s this: I'm incredibly thankful and cognizant of my luck. But gratitude and cognizance of luck don’t necessarily make me happy.
Here are some people doing good work (among many others, no doubt, including lots of you):
Despite the foregoing, I am having, and truly wish you all, a very happy Thanksgiving.