Thoughts-giving on Thanksgiving

Uncle Sam's Farm

Oh, of all the mighty nations
Of the east or of the west,
The glorious Yankee nation
Is the leader and the best.
There is room for everybody
And her banner is unfurled !
It's a general invitation
To the people of the world.
[…]
Yes we are bound to beat the nations,
For our motto's go ahead
And we'll tell the foreign paupers
That our people are well fed
For the nations must remember,
That Uncle Sam is not a fool,
For the people do the voting,
And the children go to school.
Jesse Hutchinson, Uncle Sam's Farm, (1778-1851)

How does one become a native-born son of the “New World”? How does one become an autochthon in a country of immigrants? How does one became an American, part of Uncle Sam's Farm?

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. It is the American holiday, the national holiday of American-ness. It is the holiday that marks belonging to the Corpus Americani. It is, moreover, unique to the United State of America. Notably, Thanksgiving is a National holiday, one in which a transfer takes place: from the public arena to the private sphere. For the main ritual the celebratory meal of roasted turkey is done not in the public space, but in the warm embrace of family, in the Home. It is celebrated mainly in the familial circle, around the family table. One’s belonging to the body of the Nation, to the political body, is manifested in the a-political body of the Family. The imagined national genealogy is transferred into the biological genealogy of the Family. What is the nature of this transference? For the holiday table is not the Table of the Lord, but merely the Table of the Nation. The body of the sovereign is passed into the familial body. But how is this passage from one to another effected? How does the holiday transfer from the Public to the Private? From the Nation to the Family? From narrative to practice? From myth to ritual and vice versa? In other words: how does the Corpus Americani transubstantiate, became flesh and blood?

The Thanksgiving holiday is enacted through a cycle of three main rituals: the Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, the Presidential Pardon of the Turkey, and the Holiday Meal. This cycle lasts around a week: the Proclamation is published some five days before Thanksgiving Day; the Pardon is given some two days before the Holiday. See Table 1. In 2005 for example, the Proclamation was published in Saturday (19th November), in Tuesday (the 22th) the Turkeys Marshmallow and Yam were Pardoned in the White House and in Thursday (the 24th) around 53 millions turkeys were eaten on the holiday tables.
The Thanksgiving cycle

Table 1: The Thanksgiving cycle

The three rituals mark a gradual passage not just from the secular to the festive, but also, as we shall see, from the fervent national pathos to family praxis, where high discourse is replaced by low discourse. August national trappings give way to the familial gathering. For most Americans, Thanksgiving seems to be, first and foremost, an excuse for a family gathering. The national aspect of it appears neglected. This could be understood as a manifestation of an American propensity to individualism, a decline in collectivist ideals. Alternatively, one could argue that the national aspect is so deeply rooted that, although there is no direct manifestation of it during the family meal, the nation nevertheless exists strongly in the background.

It seems that between the National and the Familial there is a large gap. It is the gap between narrative and praxis, the memory and identity of collectives versus those of individuals. I will propose here that the Pardon of the Turkey mediates between the two levels, between the high and low discourse, the national and the popular, between the narrative and the praxis. The analysis will follow the chronological order of the Cycle: starting with the Proclamation, and showing how it marks the official discourse of the National Myth. I will then discuss the Pardon as mediation ritual. The holiday meal will be discussed from the point view of “Commensality,” of eating together. Finally, the turkey will be discussed as the essential link that connects the various elements of the holiday.

I. The Proclamation of Thanksgiving

The case study will be the 2001 Thanksgiving cycle. Because it came ten weeks after the terrorist attacks of 11 September it reflects a time of crisis, a moment when American collectivity seemed to have been enhanced by external threat; traditional messages took on renewed relevance; old myths were re-awakened, endowed with new vivacity. The Proclamation of 16 November 2001 encapsulates this National narrative in only six hundred and forty-six words; In seven parsimonious paragraphs, the myth is told in all its glory and bombast. The first paragraph, indeed, opens with a citation from an earlier Thanksgiving proclamation, given by President Eisenhower “nearly half a century ago.” Why such an ambiguous usage; Why not simply give the exact date of the earlier proclamation – 31 October 1958? The ambiguity of time here is not just a matter of speech. It brings the reader into the realm of legend and myth: ‘once upon a time…’ The citation is brief and fragmentary:

Nearly half a century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed Thanksgiving as a time when Americans should celebrate "the plentiful yield of our soil . . . the beauty of our land . . . the preservation of those ideals of liberty and justice that form the basis of our national life, and the hope of international peace1."

Comparing this citation with the original text can tell us something about mythological transformation. The cited text has been placed in bold:

We are grateful for the plentiful yield of our soil and for the blessings of food and clothing and shelter that have succored us throughout the year. We rejoice in the beauty of our land; in every brave and generous act of our fellow man; and in the counsel and comfort of our friends. We deeply appreciate the preservation of those ideals of liberty and justice which form the basis of our national life and the hope of international peace. For these and all the many spiritual and temporal benefactions betokening god’s goodness, we offer up our prayers of gratitude2.

From the original text, all that remains is “the plentiful yield of our soil,” “the beauty of our land,” and the ideals of liberty that are nothing less than the “the hope of international peace.” No less important is what has been omitted: the simple thanks given for food, clothing, shelter, “our fellow man,” and the “comfort of our friends.” The prosaic details have been pushed out; they have given way to the great deeds of war, as the 2001 Proclamation continues:

Now, in the painful aftermath of the September 11 attacks and in the midst of our resolute war on terrorism, President Eisenhower's hopeful words point us to our collective obligation to defend the enduring principles of freedom that form the foundation of our Republic3.

The Proclamation starts with the need to protect the Nation, associating it with a particular set of equivalencies: Soil=Land=Liberty=Nation=Peace. All of these have come under terrorist attack; we have been terrorized. The collective order has been threatened by apparently chaotic violence. What is threatened is the “basis,” the foundation of the Republic: the liberty for the defense of which our “collective obligation” must be invoked. The words “Us, We, Our” repeat constantly4. The collective – the Us of the Nation – is beyond time: what has been said in the past becomes a contemporary discourse, eternal. That the nation is eternal and that this eternity is the source of its authority, we discover in the second paragraph:

During these extraordinary times, we find particular assurance from our Thanksgiving tradition, which reminds us that we, as a people and individually, always have reason to hope and trust in God, despite great adversity5.

The National Optimism, which is common to “Us,” the common denominator of the American people “as a people and individually” is based on “the hope and trust in God”. Like on the dollar bills: “In God we Trust” and “e pluribus unum” are put together; one nation, under God, indivisible. God, mentioned no less than seven times in the Proclamation, is indivisible, just as the Nation under him is indivisible. Here Thanksgiving wears the aspect of a religious holiday, although it is not part of any religion in particular. This is a “free-floating” religiosity, general, ambiguous but at the same time embracing, inclusive. This is the secular national religiosity, the Americanity: Thanksgiving and the 4th of July are for the nation what Easter and Christmas are for Christianity. But the two holidays differ: Independence Day is a direct celebration of the Nation’s coming into being; Thanksgiving focuses, as its name suggests, on giving thanks, to God most of all. The Nation replaces here the Holy Community, the Muslim Umma or the Christian Corpus Christi. And as in the Christian myth (which repeats the Last Supper in each Mass) so also in the American myth: the Thanksgiving meal repeats the original, mythical meal of the Pilgrims. Returning to the text of the 2001 Proclamation:

In 1621 in New England, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God, in whom they placed their hope, even though a bitter winter had taken many of their brethren6.

The Proclamation does not tell us the details of the story; Americans know them from primary school. How the first Americans, a group of 120 Pilgrims, fled religious persecution in the Old World by sailing on the Mayflower to the New World. How these freedom-starved few found refuge in the New World, landing on Plymouth Rock in 1621. How during the fist winter more than half died. How the governor of the colony declared the first Thanksgiving. How the Indians gave the colonists three turkeys. How the colonists cooked those turkeys and invited the Indians to share them. And, of course, how the good Indian Squanto taught the whites to use a dead fish as fertilizer when planting maize…

The President-Pedagogue reminds us of the essential. But there are variants, revisionist retellings, critical deconstructions. These exceed his brief. By their nature, myths are condensed - like moments of fear or love, the language is sparse; a little conveys a lot. The Presidential historical lesson continues. The brutal winter of Puritan New England gives way to a new hope for freedom: Washington’s revolutionary army at Valley Forge:

In the winter of 1777, General George Washington and his army, having just suffered great misfortune, stopped near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to give thanks to God. And there, in the throes of great difficulty, they found the hope they needed to persevere. That hope in freedom eventually inspired them to victory7.

The message is clear. The President had already invoked it in his proclamation on the evening after the attacks on 11 September: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalms 23:4)8. Here, Valley Forge is the valley of the shadow of death, the gaping crater of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Hoping becomes an imperative: one must always have hope; always praise the Lord (Cf. Psalms 71:14); it is a sine qua non for eventual salvation. The Democracy is placed under the Deocracy, subjected to God.

The third paragraph continues the presidential history lesson, but shifts to the origin of the Thanksgiving Proclamation itself:

In 1789, President Washington, recollecting the countless blessings for which our new Nation should give thanks, declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving. And decades later, with the Nation embroiled in a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln revived what is now an annual tradition of issuing a presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving. President Lincoln asked God to "heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and Union9.

The Proclamation, then, draws its authority from Tradition, from the pantheon of the fathers of the Nation, in whose company their present-day successor is now privileged to dwell: Washington, Lincoln, Bush. The War of Independence and the Civil War are linked to September 11. But the discourse of Lincoln from 1863 cannot find its way into the mouth of Bush in November 2001 without certain differences becoming apparent: Bush refers not to a bloody war of brother against brother, but to the terrorist attacks of Al-Qa’ida. The history lesson is now ended; the parallels have been drawn; now the flock is ready to receive instruction on the appropriate frame of mind with which to approach the feast:

As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11, Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and fair-minded land10.

The president specifies three groups to which special thanks are due: to the rescue forces who sacrificed themselves, to “our leaders at every level” (lest, in our gratitude, we forget our President), and last but not least the millions who reached out to help their fellow citizens in need11.

The homily, and call for thanks now concluded, the President next issues the call for prayer and charity:

In thankfulness and humility, we acknowledge, especially now, our dependence on One greater than ourselves. On this day of Thanksgiving, let our thanksgiving be revealed in the compassionate support we rende to our fellow citizens who are grieving unimaginable loss; and let us reach out with care to those in need of food, shelter, and words of hope. May Almighty God, who is our refuge and our strength in this time of trouble, watch over our homeland, protect us, and grant us patience, resolve, and wisdom in all that is to come.

The Proclamation has now come to end. The voice of the text changes, from the Us of the many, the We, it passes now to the “I,” to the unique, irreplaceable voice of the sovereign, the wielder of the exception:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2001, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage Americans to assemble in their homes, places of worship, or community centers to reinforce ties of family and community, express our profound thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and reach out in true gratitude and friendship to our friends around the world.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have here unto set my hand this sixteenth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and twenty.

We conclude by marking the phases through which we have passed. The President emerges not merely as head of state or leader of a nation; he is also the high priest of Americanity. He proclaims the holiday, he “encourages” the Americans to practice it fittingly: “to assemble in their homes, places of worship, or community centers to reinforce ties of family and community,” that we may better “express our profound thanks.” In other words, the role of the president is to remind the nation of its myths, to link them to the present time, and to give meaning to our praxis. The ritual serves here as a positive confirmation of the myth, the gathering together at the family or community level is the confirmation of the belonging to the collective Us, to the US. Being part of the Nation is also being part of its myth, through praxis.

The Proclamation ends by synchronizing Gregorian time with American time, “the year of our Lord” with the “Independence of the United States of America.” The time of the Corpus Christi is reconciled to that of the Corpus Americani. There are moments when history penetrates into the fabric of everyday life; these we call “historical moments,” the ones for which we can answer the question: “Where were you when…”? Where were you when JFK was assassinated? When Challenger exploded? When the towers collapsed? The event is “bigger than life”; the “where were you…” does not explain the event, but marks our participation in it, our very place as part of the community. In this sense it is not so different from other such questions, proffered in other quarters: Where were you when they crucified my Lord? All those questions seek to test the bonds of connection: between individuals and the collective body. The historical event becomes a kind of Big Bang, severing the continuity of time: before September 11 and after; They are understood as different eras. So it is with events that come to be understood in quasi-cosmological terms: The world will never be the same.

Sixty-seven days after the attacks, when President Bush published his Thanksgiving Proclamation, the idea of celebrating a holiday – and a holiday of gratitude, no less – might have seemed incongruous. The collapsing towers, the photos of the missing, the voices and images of the grieving, the smell of bodies in the rubble – all still hung in the air. The economic crisis, the bursting of the “Dot Com Bubble,” all served to increase the feeling of crisis in the US. The country was covered with flags, signs that read “United We Stand,” and even regular activities were imbued with meaning: the president, we may recall, had called on Americans to shop, to spend money, to consume. The traditional banalities of such consumption: became generalized slogans: “Thanks for Shopping,” or “Thank you for Traveling,” usually accompanied on a poster with an American flag. Not for shopping or flying with one company or another, but merely for shopping at all, in “these extraordinary times.”

The leader had become a historian, and the historians were called up for duty. The presidential history, to be sure, is was nothing more but also nothing less than mythology: an event in the past that repeats itself in the present. As in the Proclamation, past and the present exist together. The chaotic now is understood by finding analogy with a collective past, by placing it at the end of a long chain of events: the Proclamation of Eisenhower (“Nearly half a century ago”); the events of the 11 September and the war against terrorism; the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving of 1621 and that of George Washington’s troops in the winter of 1777; Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 finally back to the present, in the post 9/11 world.

Mythology, then, seeks not to create critical distance between different events in time, but to merge all such events into one meaning, into a complementary chain of analogies. The Proclamation is a mosaic of historical events and texts put together in an a-historical way. The word “History” is absent in the text, replaced by “Tradition”. The a-temporality of the proclamation is the temporality of the myth. A reservoir of archetypical events, a succession of units, interwoven together, and serving as a model to explain the present. As a succession of repetitions in the past, they serve as proof of the nature of the event and point to the proper reaction to it. The disaster which can not be grasped, to which we are hopelessly pinned becomes part of the nature of national time, understood in a cyclical conception of reality.

One of the basic credos of Americanity may be found in the Proclamation: that even in the hardest moment, a man should never loose hope, for God’s Providence will help him. Thanksgiving has become part of the American nature, the American character, rooted in the primordial past of the United States of America: we must ever, and always, give thanks to god. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Thanks to God is not just an expression of this faith; it is a basic law in the economics of Salvation: “Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6: 38).

II. The Pardon of the Turkey

The Presidential Pardon of the Turkey is one of the New World’s most “exotic” rituals. Every year, since 1947, the National Turkey Federation, or NTF, presents the president with two live turkeys and two dressed ones, in celebration of ThanksgivingSource: 12. While the dressed turkeys are eaten, the live ones are kept for the pardoning ceremony. One day before Thanksgiving the delegation from the NTF, comes to the White House, with the two chosen turkeys. One of the two turkeys will be used for the ceremony, while the other will be kept as substitute. The ceremony is held in the Rose Garden, the audience consisting of White House staff and their school-age children, as well as other schoolchildren specially invited for the event. The ceremony itself is very short, lasting perhaps five minutes: the president comes out from the White House, gives a short speech, pets the turkey and invites the schoolchildren to do likewise, poses for pictures, and then disappears again into depths of the White House. Both turkeys are now pardoned; they will not be eaten (unlike millions of their fellows), but will instead live happily ever after in a zoo, protected as the “Presidential Turkeys.” The ceremony is covered by the print and electronic media.

The 2001 Pardon ceremony started at 1:48 pm and finished at 1:52 pm. I give here the full text of the Presidential talk in the Pardon ritual as it appears on the official web site of the White House:

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. Please be seated. Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House. I'm not going to speak too long, because our guest of honor looks a little nervous. Nobody's told him yet that I'm going to give him a pardon.
We're especially glad that so many of the young can come today. Thank you all for being here. In a few moments, you can come up and pet the turkey if you want to.
Nick Weaver and Stuart Procter of the National Turkey Foundation are here, and I want to thank you both for being here. Honored you're here. Actually, you probably don't know this, but there were two turkeys brought to Washington for this occasion. By custom, an alternate is always on hand to fill in if needed.
This one right here – his name is Liberty. And the other turkey, the alternate, his name is Freedom. Now, Freedom is not here because he's in a secure and undisclosed location. (Laughter.)
This White House tradition dates back to Abraham Lincoln. Probably what you don't know is that Abraham Lincoln had a son named Tad who kept a turkey as a pet. I thought about trying to keep the turkey as a pet, but I don't think the two dogs and the cat would like it.
From our very beginnings, gratitude has been a part of our national character. Through the generations, our country has known its share of hardships. And we've been through some tough times, some testing moments during the last months. Yet, we've never lost sight of the blessings around us: the freedoms we enjoy, the people we love, and the many gifts of our prosperous land.
On this holiday, we give thanks for our many blessings and for life itself. Thanksgiving reminds us that the greatest gifts don't come from the hands of man, but from the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
These week [sic] American families will gather in that spirit. We will remember, too, those who approach the holidays with a burden of sadness. We think especially of families that recently lost loved ones, and of our men and women in the Armed Forces serving far away from home.
This is a nation of many faiths. And this holiday season, we'll all be joined in prayer that those who mourn will find comfort; that those in dangers will find protection; and that God will continue to watch over the land we love.
I now have the duty of ending the suspense of our feathery guest. For this turkey and his traveling companion, this will not be their last Thanksgiving. They will live out their days in comfort and care of Kidwell Farm of Herndon, Virginia. By virtue of an unconditional presidential pardon, they are safe from harm.
May God continue to bless America, and I hope everybody has a happy Thanksgiving. Thank you for coming. We'll go over and see the turkey. (Applause13.)

How are we to understand the ceremony of the Pardon of the Turkey? Is it a “serious” event? Or a charivari, a carnavelistic mock ritual of subversion?

 

Pardon of the Turkey 2001
Photo of the ceremony on the White House Official Web Site

We might note that the president opens his speech with a series of jokes. The first of these is in the opening line: “I'm not going to speak too long, because our guest of honor looks a little nervous. Nobody's told him yet that I'm going to give him a pardon.” Why is it funny? It creates a tension between the President and the turkey, between the stupidity of the bird, and its humanization. Pardon as we know is human, as is execution. Other animals (though they can certainly be killed) cannot be executed, and therefore cannot be pardoned. Execution is a legal punishment; the punishment for particular crimes as enumerated in law and statute. The sovereign, however, wields the power of exception, the authority to suspend statute, to pardon the condemned. I will come back to this point later on. Thus to substitute “our feathery guest” for the body of a real human being is a classical carnival act. It recalls the Medieval Mass of the Donkey, in which a donkey was brought to the altar of the church and a mass was sung to it, rather than to Christ.

But we get ahead of ourselves: let us return to our discussion of the presidential jokes. The second joke concerns the structure of political power:

Actually, you probably don't know this, but there were two turkeys brought to Washington for this occasion. By custom, an alternate is always on hand to fill in if needed. This one right here – his name is Liberty. And the other turkey, the alternate, his name is Freedom. Now, Freedom is not here because he's in a secure and undisclosed location. (Laughter.)

What is so funny here? It’s not the bombastic names given to the birds: Liberty and Freedom. Freedom and liberty are not laughing matters, eleven weeks after 9/11 in particular. The audience is laughing because the joke recalls a profound insecurity: after 9/11, the President and the Vice-President were kept separate, lest one of them be killed. What is at stake is the fragility of sovereignty itself, of the continuity of political power as such. The joke traces this tension, bringing its own discourse ad absurdum.

The third joke, also plays with an anthropomorphic politics, plays on the possibility of tensions within the presidential household. “I thought about trying to keep the turkey as a pet, but I don't think the two dogs and the cat would like it.” A friend-enemy dichotomy is transferred here into the animal world. The language of homeland security is transferred to keeping the peace between the presidential pets. The high politics of war and peace are brought, as it were, from the Situation Room to the doghouse. The entire event is amusing and the three jokes that opened the ceremony prepare us for a serious message concerning the festivity. As in the Proclamation, the president speaks about gratitude. Here that gratitude becomes “part of our national character,” embossed as a theology of hope, thanksgiving, and subjection to God. “Thanksgiving,” the president explains, “reminds us that the greatest gifts don't come from the hands of man, but from the Maker of Heaven and Earth.” As in the Proclamation, the President explains to what and to whom one should give thanks. We are instructed in what we should do “that God will continue to watch over the land we love.”

The three jokes of the president and his advisers touch on three important aspects of sovereignty: the power over life and death, the continuity of the regime, and the politics of peace and war. Parodying it makes it less threatening: the question of the death penalty becomes funny. The president’s power over human life applies not just to those condemned to death for some criminal offense, but also to the lives of soldiers he commands – indeed, over all of his citizens. To soften this, to make presidential power human, to render it merely amusing is to subvert criticism. The temporal power of sovereignty is terrifying. We hasten to reassure ourselves that it is perhaps not so serious after all. But whether we admit it or not, we are sovereignty’s subjects and we depend upon it for our sense of security. If we do not take sovereignty seriously, how may we critique it, control it, keep watch over it?

The pardon of the Turkey is a serious event for the National Turkey Federation. It is a good opportunity to do some marketing of the Turkey, on the eve of the day when the Turkey industry does fully one quarter of its annual business. Bottom line, the Federation is – as its internet site explains – “the national advocate for all segments of the turkey industry, providing services and conducting activities which increase demand for its members' products by protecting and enhancing their ability to profitably provide wholesome, high-quality, nutritious products14.” But what does the President stand to gain from the pardoning of the Turkey? After all, the president is not selling Turkey. Doubtless, as the NTF web site explains, the ceremony provides “the President an opportunity to reflect publicly on the meaning of the Thanksgiving season15”. It is the medium through which the high message of the national myth is transferred to the public. It is a pedagogical spectacle, in which sovereignty is manifest. The humanized Turkey – like animals in Aesop’s fables – serves to disguise a moral, wrapping human affairs in animal skins. In the Pardon, the national narrative of the proclamation is softened.

The logic of the pardon is the logic of exception. The exceptionality of the Pardon vis-à-vis the approximately 53 million turkeys consumed (or sacrificed) over Thanksgiving finds its analogue in the exceptionality of the President vis-à-vis the 265 million Americans. The difference between the sovereign and its subjects is dramatized by the unique ritualization of the presidential turkey. The turkey links presidential discourse to the family meal, but it does so by differentiating it. One notes a set of differences between the two:

 

Pardon of the Turkey

Thanksgiving Meal

The White House

The Family House

Outside

Inside

Garden

Eating room

Living Turkey

Dead Turkey

Petting

Eating

Naming the Turkey

No name

President

Father

 

Eating the turkey is an act of commensality – of becoming part of a community by partaking in food, by acting together as a community of eating. Traditionally, the Turkey is cut by the father of the family, and is shared by all the members of the family. When the father of the family unifies the family by cutting the Turkey and by dividing the Turkey among the family member, the President unifies the family around the Turkey, by pardoning the Turkey and by inviting the children to pet it. The Pardon is a negative of the meal. This comic reverse of the family ritual serves to send a message to the Corpus Americani that the President is both a part and not a part of the Corpus Americani. As Magnus Fiskesjo notes in his book The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo:

Masquerading as a joke, it is really a symbolic pardoning act which, through public performance, establishes and manifests the sovereign’s position at the helm of the state by highlighting, as an attribute of his position, his power to control matters of life and death. […] The symbolic pardon granted to a turkey, giving it a continued lease on life, signals the very manner in which sovereignty thrives on the exception. […] In this zone of exception, the life-and-death issues at hand are decided on the say-so of the one man whose body natural assumes the position at the helm of the body politic16.

The Turkey of the Pardon embodies the exception of Sovereignty. But what manifests itself in the Turkey of the meal? What is the meaning, not of the living feathered bird, but of the dead bird consecrated in its own sauce? The Turkey Thanksgiving raison d’être, we are told, is to commemorate the turkeys of the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving meal. However, it is also understood that the turkey is a native bird, the American bird, and thus represents Americaness. We eat the native bird in order to become natives; we have to digest nativeness to become autochthons.

Along these lines, one can read the myth of the first Thanksgiving as the myth of passage of autochthonicity from the Indians to the Whites. Often, it is said that the Indians gave the Pilgrims wild turkeys that they themselves hunted, that the Pilgrims cooked them and that the Pilgrims invited the Indians to their meal. The raw meat of the wild bird that the “savages” gave to the “civilized” whites was returned to them as cooked meat. Raw and cooked, Nature and Culture, Indians and Whites.

The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930).

It is interesting that the native bird is not named after the native peoples, but rather after a nation of the old world. Can we imagine the French eating, on 14 July, some fowl named Chile? Or that the Turks are eating some America? The Thanksgiving obsession with autochthonicity would make more sense in French, where the word for turkey is dindede l’inde, Indian.

In the myth of the first Thanksgiving, thanks is shifted from the Indians to God. In Bush’s version of Thanksgiving the Indians are completely absent. The passage is no longer a passage from the natives to the settlers, but rather one from the fathers of the nation to us, from the President to the citizen.

Thoughts-giving on Thanksgiving

What is the meaning of the word “Thanksgiving”? Of “Thanks” plus “Giving”? What is it to “thanks give”? To be a thanks giver? Saying “thanks” is an automatic expression of gratitude: “Thank you,” “Thanks,” “Merci,” “Grazie,” “Vielen Dank.” It is a gesture that we do when we are given something by someone: it is a response to giving – when we receive, we give our thanks in return. This is second nature of the polite man. The primary sense of the word “thank” in Old English was “thought.” But if originally thanking meant thinking about, then in our usage saying “thanks” is something that we do, most of the time, quite automatically – that is to say, thoughtlessly. In Thanksgiving being thankful becomes the nature of the American nation: “we are a grateful nation,” a hopeful, optimistic people. This is the discourse of the PC – not the discourse of the Political Correct, but rather of the Positively Correct. To be American means to be positive: a positive imperative one interiorizes. This is the culture of the superlative, of the inflation of the positive, of a super-abundance of love and goodness. Doubtless, this Capital of Satisfaction, of Greatness must have some positive sides, but such an inflationary addiction to praise is a danger to criticism and, thus, to politics.

If the PC is interiorized, then auto-censorship precedes the social. The PC becomes not just the Positively Correct but Personal Correctness. Doubt is arrested before it can take its place in the republic of criticism – the political is dead. The political is born in the “between” of negotiation, in the questioning of Tradition, an endless polishing of policy. When the public becomes private, when the nation becomes the home, the polis is dead. We are staying at home, neutralizing the public sphere of the “between.” The polis is reduced the infrastructure of physical bureaucracy, a sphere of nomos stripped of the political. When the positive imperative of Greatness dominates social interaction, the result is a neutralization of the Polis.

So what, in the end, is this Thanksgiving? Is it a national holiday or a family one? Does the Turkey embody Sovereignty, the Corpus Americani or family unity? Probably both. However, what is striking in Thanksgiving is the unique place that it gives to thanking in the imagined national character. Do the French have a special holiday for thanking their Frenchness? The Germans, the Syrians, the New Zealanders? Whereas every country has its independence day, Thanksgiving is an American enterprise. One wonders how much the PC theology of Thanksgiving is limiting political life in the USA? Thanking is a quiet, quietistic action. When thanking is applied to politics, one has to ask “why and for the sake of what are we thanking?”
Myths are dynamic. They do not cease to change, to transform. One can trace Thanksgiving back through a series of mythological transformations from the Biblical myth of Exodus – and its holiday, Passover – to Christianity and to Americanity. In Christianity the meal of Passover was transformed to the Last Supper, the Pascal Sacrifice with the crucifixion, the Pascal Lamb into the Lamb of God. The Passover became Pasqua (Easter). The liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt becomes the liberation of humanity from the original sin. Et cetera. The mythological foundation event, the Last Supper was the model for the collective meals of the first Christian communities, the Agape – the meal of Love – where the community was gathered around the Lord’s table, breaking bread. From this ritual developed the Mass, where the Eucharist is taken.
Receiving the Eucharist in the Mass became a central sacrament. With the Eucharist, one confirmed one’s belong to the Corpus Christi, which later becomes the Corpus Misticum. Protestantism criticized belief in transubstantiation and the Eucharist was conceived more as a symbolic invocation of the Last Supper than as an actual transformation. With the decline of the Eucharist in Protestant thinking, there arose the collective festive meal of Thanksgiving. The link between Thanksgiving and the Eucharist is indirect, but it is not fanciful: Eucharist is Greek for Thanksgiving.

 

President George W. Bush with the Pardon Turkey

 

President George W. Bush is joined by Lynn Nutt of Springfield, Mo., as he poses with “Flyer” the turkey during a ceremony Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2006 in the White House Rose Garden, following the President’s pardoning of the turkey before the Thanksgiving holiday.

1  George W. Bush 2001 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 16, 2001. Source:
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011116-3.html
2  Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation”, 31 October 1958. Source:
www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc1950
3  George W. Bush 2001 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 16, 2001. Source:
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011116-3.html
4  The words “We” appears 5 times,” Our”, 16 times, and “Us” 9 times.
5  George W. Bush 2001 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 16, 2001. Source:
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011116-3.html
6  George W. Bush 2001 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 16, 2001. Source:
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011116-3.html
7  Ibid.
8  “America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me." This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day. Yet, we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world. Thank you. Good night, and God bless America.”, 09/11/2001, END 8:35 P.M. EDT, Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation, www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/2001091
9  “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.”, Abraham Lincoln, “Thanksgiving Day Proclamation”, 3 October 1863. Source: http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ThanxProc1862
10  George W. Bush 2001 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 16, 2001. Source:
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011116-3.html
11  Let us particularly give thanks for the self-less sacrifices of those who responded in service to others after the terrorist attacks, setting aside their own safety as they reached out to help their neighbors. Let us also give thanks for our leaders at every level who have planned and coordinated the myriad of responses needed to address this unprecedented national crisis. And let us give thanks for the millions of people of faith who have opened their hearts to those in need with love and prayer, bringing us a deeper unity and stronger resolve.
12  www.eatturkey.com/consumer/history/history.html
13  George W. Bush, Pardon of the Turkey, 2001. Source:
www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011119
16  Fiskesjo, Magnus. The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003, p. 3.