By Dr. Rodolfo F. Acuña
British historian EJ Hobsbawm died just over a year ago. His works had a tremendous impact on my generation of progressive historians. He would take a theme and deconstruct it by using meticulous logic and documentation. Hobsbawm never suffocated his narrative with obtuse theory or meta-language.
One of my favorites was a thin anthology that he co-edited with Terence Ranger titled The Invention of Tradition.
In his introductory essay, Hobsbawm defined the invention of tradition as “a set of practices … of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” The invented traditions had a purpose, and gave a continuity of varied accuracy that formed a largely fictitious history.
Other historians have tied this invention of tradition to state building endeavors. William H. Beezley in Mexican National Identity: Memory, Innuendo, and Popular Culture sees identity as fashioned “in the streets”; however, there are others who say that very few holidays come from the people, tying the process to state building.
Essentially, the state builds a historical narrative that gives its citizens a sense of unity. Holidays are designed to give legitimacy to the accepted version of history that does not always conform to the Truth. It is a process that builds a “national culture.”
Deviation from this narrative disturbs people and even offends them. My sister would not invite me to social gatherings during the Vietnam War because I would bring up topics such as racism, police brutality and the Vietnam War. I was told that I was a party pooper, and would lay intellectual pedos (farts) — forcing people to move away.
Hobsbawm was like Rene Descartes who, in the 17th century, began his journey by questioning scholasticism, and paved the way for historical materialism. It was and is not easy to correct traditional narratives.
Like toddlers people want to hear stories told the way they first learned them. There are people who still cling to the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, for instance.
The months of October and November are replete with fictitious versions of history. During these two months, the state allocates holidays for Columbus Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. These official narratives become the Truth.
Teachers teach students fictitious narratives, and in turn the public is grateful for the gift of a holiday.
By far, the “the king of the holidays” is Thanksgiving.
The narrative has been burned into our consciousness to the point that few Americans question the facts because no one wants to lay the proverbial intellectual pedo.
Almost everyone is grateful for the day off. Merchants love Thanksgiving. It is the perfect opening act for Christmas.
The ritual of sitting down with the family to eat cheap turkey, chucked full of hormones, has been immortalized by Norman Rockwell. It is a day when you eat cheap turkeys and hams and everyone can pig out.
Not much thought is given to the truth of the narrative.
Kids just want their four-day relief from school, and parents are smug in the belief that the colonists and the Indians lived in peace. The only ones who care about changing the narrative are Native Americans who call it a National Day of Mourning.
Few people know that the tradition of Thanksgiving was invented during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln in October 1863 when he proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. Thereafter, the myth of the Pilgrims and the Indians was constructed.
The story is known by almost every American. For twelve years, from K-12, they learn the story that in the early autumn of 1621,fifty-three surviving Pilgrims celebrated a successful harvest. The natives joined the celebration and instead of attacking the Pilgrims, they made peace.
The Indians were thanked: their land was stolen from them, they were massacred, and many lived out their lives in slavery. The consequence is that less than one percent of Americans have Native American blood, contrasted to 90 percent of Mexican Americans with indigenous blood.
It is difficult to change the narrative because most Americans love their myths, and they love their cheap turkey. They want to believe the lie that makes them feel exceptional.
There is little doubt that invented tradition strengthens nationalism.
The elites are legitimized by the invented traditions, and in turn they invent other traditions. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States where it permeates political views and historical narratives.
No doubt that Thanksgiving happened. However, the narrative is not vetted, and it introduces a new set of dynamics. It affects our decision-making, and often clouds what is truth and what is fiction.
When the French peasantry was starving in the 18th century because they could not afford bread, it caused widespread discontent. The myth was born that French Queen Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.” It inflamed the masses – beautiful story but it wasn’t true.
Traditional narratives are good and bad, and are difficult to correct. As Napoleon once said, history is the tale of the victor. Today the narrative belongs to the state and those who control the state.
The truth be told, Thanksgiving hides the reality of the soup kitchens. The corporate-owned media show charitable groups passing out free traditional Turkey Dinners to the poor when the reality is that many have been deprived of jobs, food stamps, and their children have been robbed of free nutritious lunches. Greater numbers are homeless. Yet the Thanksgiving narrative shows us as a compassionate people – one big happy family.
The myth of the grateful Pilgrims permeates this narrative. In many ways, we are like the Indians who were robbed and killed after sharing our labor.
The invented tradition of Thanksgiving is so much a part of the American narrative that many people go into depression if they cannot celebrate it with family and friends. Psychologists say that it is the worse time of the year to be alone; loneliness causes a social anxiety disorder (SAD).
Thanksgiving is the ultimate example of social control, and the invented reality that Americans, like the pilgrims, were justified in stealing the land and killing the people.
Our lives become one big Thanksgiving for being an American.
The Sierra Club reports “that the average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China … With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.”
There is a similar gap between the poor and the 1 percent in America. The fictitious history alleviates our guilt, and we forget the reasons why some people are in food lines, and others are eating cheap hormone infected birds, while a few eat organic turkey.
Not knowing, not questioning makes this El Día de los Pendejos (Day of the Fools).
We are fools because we don’t question the narrative. It is why we keep repeating injustices.
So now pass me the gravy.
Dr. Rodolfo Francisco Acuña, called the “father of Chicano Studies,” is a historian, professor emeritus, activist and the author of 20 titles, 32 academic articles and chapters in books, 155 book reviews and 188 opinion pieces. Currently, he teaches Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge