Turning gratitude into action: Let’s give thanks, and get back to saving democracy


In many ways, nations are like people. Their identities are based on lies, facts, fictions, truths, fantasies, myths and contradictory stories that can come together to create something bigger than the sum of their parts.

And like many people, a “nation” usually resists engaging in the types of critical self-reflection that would be necessary for it to grow and become more emotionally healthy and mature.

It is exactly that type of critical thinking (and critical patriotism) that America needs in this moment of democracy crisis and other troubles if it is to escape the fascist dream, or nightmare, that now envelops the nation. James Baldwin exemplifies this in “Notes of a Native Son” when he writes, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

This is no less true on the holiday weekend when we are supposed to give thanks for what we have — and in some ways may be even more true this year.

The story of Thanksgiving’s origins is one of white settler colonialism, and a series of encounters and decisions that would ultimately lead to the defeat or destruction of indigenous peoples and the widespread enslavement and murder of Black people (as well as others) across North America and the trans-Atlantic world.

Thanksgiving as a lived experience and memory for many Americans is also one of gratitude, generosity, friends, family and home (in its many forms).

Both these things can be true at the same time; Nations, like people, are contradictory and messy.

To this point, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains how Thanksgiving became a national holiday:

I’m a historian, so that’s the historical context that I think we have to see Thanksgiving in, that it is a part of that mythology that attempts to cover up the real history of the United States.

It actually — when it was introduced as a holiday by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, there was no mention of pilgrims and Native people or food or pumpkins or anything like that. It was simply a day for families to be together and mourn their dead and be grateful for the living…. But they should take Native Americans and Puritans out of the picture for it to be a legitimate holiday of feast and sharing with family and friends.

In that spirit, what does Thanksgiving mean in the Age of Trump and beyond? What should the American people be thankful for? Donald Trump and the Republican fascists have were not successful in drowning the American people and their democracy in a “red tide” during the midterms. Pro-democracy Americans won at least a brief reprieve and an opportunity to reorganize, recharge and amplify their resistance.

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I am also thankful that Donald Trump has finally announced his 2024 presidential campaign. It is much easier to confront and defeat monsters when they are fully exposed and their ambitions or desires or clear, rather than when they lurk in the shadows, threatening to pounce at any moment.

I have been reflecting on the words of musician, composer and visual artist Brian Eno in a 2017 interview with the Guardianwhen asked about the Trump election and the Brexit vote:

Actually, in retrospect, I’ve started to think I’m pleased about Trump and I’m pleased about Brexit because it gives us a kick up the arse and we needed it because we weren’t going to change anything. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton had won and we’d been business as usual, the whole structure she’d inherited, the whole Clinton family myth. I don’t know that’s a future I would particularly want. It just seems that was grinding slowly to a halt, whereas now, with Trump, there’s a chance of a proper crash, and a chance to really rethink.

After a certain amount of blowback in response to those comments, Eno elaborated in a subsequent post on Facebook:

May I make something absolutely clear: I think Donald Trump is a complete disaster. And Brexit is a disaster too. That said, what I think is an even greater disaster is that we in the US and the UK — and increasingly the rest of the world — live inside political systems that can produce absurd results like these…. My hope — the only hope really — is that Trump in office will reveal himself for what he really is, and that the public will roundly and unequivocally reject him and everything he stands for — his terrible policies, his jingoism, his arrogance, his childishness, his lies, his prejudices and his small-mindedness. In rejecting Trump we’ll also start to take down the whole malignant media-political structure that so lovingly nurtured him….

For 40 years we’ve been sliding into a deepening pit of inequality, fear-driven nationalism and conservatism, and mostly not noticing. Trump’s presidency could inadvertently change that — not because he’s going to do anything right but because his election is energising people to come to grips with the fact that their political system is fundamentally broken and it’s time to do something about it….

It may have taken almost six years too long, but Eno’s hopes may finally be coming true here in the United States.

As I contemplate the meaning of the 2022 Thanksgiving holiday, I also been returning to what the legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear — also a lifelong activist for civil rights — wrote in a recent opinion essay for USA Today:

Today, it is not only common ground that is elusive; it is a common grounding in reality. A common sense of decency. A common commitment to democratic rule and the peaceful transfer of power. It often feels overwhelming.

But I have faith in us. We have been deeply divided before. We had our own fascist movement before World War II. We had our own apartheid system to dismantle. In the face of stiff and sometimes violent resistance, Americans have lifted up millions out of poverty, embraced legal equality for women and LGBTQ+ people, protected the dignity and autonomy of people with disabilities, began acting to preserve our planetary home, and recognized that “we, the people” are a beautiful multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious lot …

Lear just turned 100 years old and writes, “I don’t love that at the start of my second century, we must fight to defend so many of the gains that were achieved during my first century.” But as a father and grandfather, he adds, he “loves his country and its people too much to give up”:

We owe one another solidarity as we assess the economic and political power of the forces arrayed against us. And we owe one another a generous measure of appreciation for all the ways we have made progress toward “a more perfect union” even as we recognize that we are far from delivering on the American promise.

I weep tears of gratitude for the young people who have made that struggle their own. Some won magnificent victories this week. Some faced heartbreaking losses. That will always be the case.

In this holiday season, the American people need to transform thanks and gratitude from passive nouns into affirmative verbs and actions — as Lear puts it, into a renewed “patriotism of purpose, of caring for one another and for our democracy.”

Americans can and should give thanks by doing the work of democracy on a local level and in their personal lives: by joining community groups, helping neighbors in need, talking to strangers, supporting local journalism and the arts, and participating in the public sphere and civil society more broadly. Those actions and others like them can help create the type of social capital and human relationships that will sustain and power the long struggle to defeat American neofascism that still lies ahead, and can build momentum for a transformative politics aimed at creating a genuine social democracy here in the United States.

Perhaps most important, Americans should embrace the spirit of this contradictory holiday weekend to show gratitude for the fact that they still live in a democracy — albeit a troubled one, still much imperiled and in need of improvement — because just a few weeks ago that seemed very much in doubt.

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about the 2022 midterms and America’s narrow escape


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