Thanksgiving – False Consciousness vs. Solidarity

December 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I guess professors at Harvard Law don’t have to read Durkheim.

Jon Hanson, Alfred Smart Professor in Law at Harvard, has a post on “Thanksgiving as System Justification.” I didn’t come across this post till after Thanksgiving, and Hanson posted it for Thanksgiving 2007 (The Situationist reposted it). Still, it’s worth mentioning.

Hanson sees Thanksgiving as an exercise in false consciousness. He doesn’t use that term, but he’s arguing that the message of Thanksgiving is, “Don’t complain, be thankful.” And when people are justifying and giving thanks for a system that’s basically screwing them, that’s false consciousness. By giving thanks for what we have, we are supporting the status quo.

Hanson quotes stuff he’s found on the Internet (I have boldfaced the key phrases) :
  • your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life.. . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid? [implying that if you’re not thankful for your exploitative job, you should be]

  • The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows.

  • The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.
That last one is a bit political – telling the wealthy and powerful they need not feel any guilt – and obviously written for Republicans. But Thanksgiving is inherently conservative. Its message that we should be thankful for what we have is another way of saying, “Whatever is is right.”

It’s right, as these formulations tell us, because it is the work of God. Or as President Bush said in last year’s Thanksgiving declaration, “We give thanks to the Author of Life . . . who watches over our nation every day.” If God is watching over us every day, things must be O.K.

But Hanson misses the larger, Durkheimian insight: Rituals exist for the benefit of the society (or whatever group that stages them). The goal of any ritual is social solidarity, solidarity among all members of the society. Your basic religious ritual, for example, exalts God. But God, as Durkheim showed, functions as a representation of the society. So all rituals are inherently conservative; they idealize and uphold the society as a whole and promote the attachment of individuals to that whole.

The sacred world of ritual may be conservative in this sense, but elsewhere, in the profane world, change happens – change we can be thankful for. I just wonder whether godly conservatives, those who “recognize that everything we have is a gift from God” included the election of Obama as one of those gifts . . . and gave thanks for it last Thursday.

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