Saturday, November 26, 2016

Having a Partisan Thanksgiving

I hope you've all had a happy and relaxing Thanksgiving. I was lucky to host this year, with both my wife's family and mine traveling here to scenic Ohio, and I was also the lucky cook. (I took over turkey and gravy a few years ago, but this was my first year doing the whole meal, and -- since people had traveled to see us -- also feeding the crew on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.) And I was lucky enough to avoid political arguments at the table, because no one in my family voted for Trump. But political arguments on Thanksgiving are not the end of the world. Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, is the direct result of political conflict, and it's a mistake for us to forget that.

So, a quick history lesson:

Everybody knows the story about the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation. And that's true, in the sense that the event really did take place. But that's not when Thanksgiving became a national or even a regular holiday. The Pilgrims didn't have another Thanksgiving the next November. And some people know the historical fact that Lincoln proclaimed the first regular, national Thanksgiving, although that fact tends to confuse people. How did this holiday get founded twice, first in 1621 and then in 1863? And how can it be that Thanksgiving's two original moments happen more than 240 years apart?

A quick google search will explain that Lincoln simply set a standard national date for Thanksgiving, which different states were celebrating on different days. And that is part of the story. But that makes it sound as if the whole country was already united behind Thanksgiving, which only the logistical problem of deciding when to have it. That's not true. (Think "things left to the states to decide" and "Lincoln" and you'll see where this story is going.)

The real truth is that Thanksgiving was originally part of America's cultural wars, and so was Christmas. We now think of those two holidays as part of a single season, but they used to be indirectly (and sometimes pretty directly) opposed to each other. Not everyone celebrated both, and the division between the holidays broke down on regional, religious, and ideological lines.

Thanksgiving is a New England thing. It was originally a regional holiday, celebrated by New Englanders. It's also, not to put too fine a point on it, a Puritan holiday, celebrated in the Northeast by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and other churches with Puritan roots. Thanksgiving was especially valuable to these Puritan-leaning New Englanders because they did not celebrate Christmas. They actively despised Christmas as a lot of heathenish nonsense. Celebrating it, or even closing the store on December 25, went against their religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Christmas was widely celebrated in the South, which had been heavily settled by Anglicans who observed the traditional liturgical holidays. (New York was also a stronghold of Christmas, partly because of its old Dutch roots and partly because it was such an ethnic and religious melting pot.) But plenty of Southerners wanted nothing to do with Thanksgiving. They saw it as alien: a celebration of another region's culture and another denomination's beliefs. They were not wrong. A lot of Southerners also saw Thanksgiving as an abolitionist thing, and they weren't wrong about that either. The lead campaigner for Thanksgiving as a national holiday was the novelist Sarah Josepha Hale: a feminist Yankee abolitionist. Thanksgiving was against Southern values.

Christmas spread more or less nationwide in the 1840s and 1850s, although it did not become a legal federal holiday until 1870. But it was slowest to spread in New England and, although I don't want to overstate the case, there was at least some overlap between the people campaigning for Christmas in New England and the people campaigning for national unity and brotherhood, meaning appeasing Southerners on the slavery question. Thanksgiving spread out across the country as well, perhaps more slowly, because people kept moving west from New England to places like Michigan and Ohio and bringing Thanksgiving with them. So there was eventually an overlap where states celebrated both holidays, but Thanksgiving in November did not really spread in the South.

Thanksgiving, our holiday of national unity and togetherness, became a national holiday because the North won the war. Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving nine months after the Emancipation Proclamation. Sarah Josepha Hale was happy about both. American Thanksgiving was a victory for Northern abolitionist values.

We don't remember all of this story, because we don't like to remember it. Our country can never forget the Civil War, but we work very hard to forget the twenty or thirty years that led up to it. We like to talk about unity and civility and getting past partisan divisions. We don't like to remember that unity, civility, and compromise were key arguments for continuing to permit slavery. We forget that the opponents of slavery were called divisive and accused of tearing the country apart. If we remember that, we would have to remember that the Civil Rights Movement was accused of tearing the country apart, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was called a radical communist. We would have to remember that the people calling for unity and mutual understanding in the 1950s and early 1960s were calling for more sympathy for Southern segregationists and their feelings about their local traditions, that demands for justice were called unnecessarily confrontational.

We like to tell ourselves a story about a united, harmonious nation, joined in consensus. That story is neither true nor healthy. Our history is one of repeated confrontations over core national principles, and maybe most importantly a history of confrontation over race. And, time and again, Americans who stand up for racial equality, for America's best republican-with-a-small-r traditions, are accused of incivility and divisiveness. Because the cardinal rule of American political etiquette, in 1856 and in 1956 and in 2016, is that it is divisive and uncivil to take non-whites' side against one's fellow white people. How can you be so unpleasant and make such trouble, when surely whatever this problem is can wait?

That's still the story today, when there are public calls to unify behind the most divisive political figure in modern history, a politician who only sees some Americans as real Americans. The call for "unity" is a call to accept that racist, tribal definition of America, to "unify" by excluding a third of our fellow citizens and to pretend that they are not "really" American. That isn't unity. And that isn't the America I celebrate.

But Thanksgiving is a reminder of one old, deep strand in the American spirit, a strand that has stood by unpopular principle and resisted wrongful power. That's the spirit of the Pilgrim Separatists at Plymouth, and the spirit of the New England abolitionists who followed after them, with a heavy helping of Revolutionary patriots in between. I am grateful for that American legacy, which we need today as much as we ever have.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I'm Staying American. How About You?

Because I love my country, Tuesday's election broke my heart. My fellow Americans -- less than half of us, but still too many -- turned their backs on what is best in our country to elect a man who has no love and no understanding of the things that make America great: freedom and equality.

Somewhere between forty-seven and forty-eight percent of voters decided that they wanted a race-baiting authoritarian instead. Those voters turned out not to love the same country I do, not to love it for the reasons it is worth loving.

But I still believe in that America. I believe in the America of liberty, equality, and justice for all, the America that has not always lived up to its values but still always had them. I am not quitting on that country. I was raised to love it, and I will die believing in it.

If America is about white people hating brown people, you can have it. That version of America can go to hell, and will. Yes, I know our history of racist violence and plunder. I cannot deny it. But I have no allegiance to that history. The America I believe in, the America worth believing in, has always existed alongside that uglier vision. They are the wrestling sides of the American soul. I am not done wrestling. If we give up on our better angels, there's no country left for me to love.

For the last five nights and days, I have been asking myself what I am going to do now. And I still have no answer but Whatever I have to. The path forward is not yet clear, and I am not ready for everything I may need to do. I am not eager for any of it. This is not the fight I would have chosen.

But I have had it easy. I grew up lucky in a free country, in a generation that was not asked much. I was a sunshine patriot, born in the sun. I could praise the heroes of our past, the Franklins and the Lincolns and the Dr. Kings, without having to ask if I would have met their challenge. That isn't true anymore. I wish it were, but it's not.

Some generations are asked to go to Valley Forge: to stand by their country when the outlook is darkest. Some generations are chosen to stand up for the American experiment, to risk and suffer for it, to bear witness. We have now become one of those generations, and we are off to a sorry start.  But this, of all times, is not the time to quit. This is when America, the America we grew up loving, needs us most. The time for the sunshine patriot is gone. These are the times that try men's souls.

crossposted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

freedom for all under the law, equal protection and opportunity, and America dedicated to expanding

Monday, November 07, 2016

Vote for American Democracy. Vote Hillary.

This Tuesday, I want to ask you to vote for something bigger than a person. I ask you to vote for the future of our country. I ask you to vote, as an American, for our democratic republic and for the constitutional political system that has preserved us from civil violence for the past hundred and fifty years. I ask you to keep faith with the American experiment. The best and only way to do that this year is to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Vote for a country where we don't jail the loser of an election, or threaten to jail our political opponents.

Vote for a country where both parties agree to abide by our elections.

Vote for a country where no major candidate casts doubt on the fairness of our elections.

Vote for a country where the politics stop at the water's edge, and no party accepts or tolerates interference from a foreign power.

Vote for a country where we have a full and functioning Supreme Court, and where no party damages our democratic government just to keep the other party from having its turn to make appointments.

Vote for a country where the President does not order our military to kill unarmed women and children.

Vote for a country where we do not shut down the government or threaten to default on the national debt because one party lost a fair vote about something they wanted.

Vote for a party where no eligible voter is turned away from the polls, and no voter is intimidated while waiting to vote.

Vote for a country where the President does not threaten freedom of the press.

Vote for a country where we solve our disagreements through rules that we have agreed on beforehand, the rules of politics, law, and civil order, rather than through force. Vote for a country where we make deals and live by them rather than shooting at each other or throwing each other in jail.

If "making deals" sounds corrupt or dirty to you, remember that the alternative is lawlessness and despotism. The choice is not between compromise and idealism. The choice is between compromise and tyranny. It is the rule of law or the rule of force.

And if tearing up the system sounds like a good idea to you, remember that the system we're talking about -- peaceful transfer of power, freedom of the press, parties abiding by elections -- is the system put in place by George Washington and the Framers of the Constitution.

This year, one candidate is running to be President inside George Washington's system. The other is running to make himself something like a king, with powers that Washington did not want any president to have and that the other Founders would not trust even to Washington: the power to jail opponents, the power to shut down newspapers. It is not clear our democracy can survive that.

Don't take my word for it. Take Donald Trump's. He has said he wants to throw his opponent in prison. He is campaigning on that. He has promised to order our soldiers to kill women and children, promised to authorize torture, promised to "open up the libel laws" so he could close down newspapers and news channels. And he has openly said that he will not agree to accept the results of the election if he does not win. He is not running against Hillary Clinton. He is running against the American Republic.

Hillary Clinton is a compromising politician, which makes her unpopular with some people. But I ask you to vote for an American who solves conflicts through compromise and politics, within the bounds of the Constitution. I ask you to vote for a negotiator. I ask you to vote for a deal-maker. I ask you to vote for four more years of Americans at peace with one another in our own country.

I ask you, above all, to vote for the possibility of another election like this one, to give yourself another chance to vote in 2020, and 2024, and for the long hopeful future of our beautiful country. I ask you to vote for politics and for politicians, for democracy in all its messy, mundane, compromised glory. I ask you to vote for the Constitution of the United States of America, and to vote for Hillary Clinton, who will guard that Constitution for all her days in office and pass that sacred charge along, as Washington and Adams and Jefferson did, to her duly elected successor.

I ask you to keep the faith with all the Americans who have gone before us, believing in our democratic Republic, and to keep faith with all the Americans yet to come. Let the American Experiment go forward, and may it last forever.

cross-posted from (and all comments welcome at) Dagblog