Some Changes in the Celebration of Thanksgiving Over the Years

…several changes have occurred in American Thanksgiving Day celebrations in their more than 350-year history. Few households now serve mince pie, a onetime tradition. The focus on hunting and wild game is reduced (Ramsey 1979); the emphasis on the bounty of agriculture has increased. Churchgoing is now rare. Prayer persists for some but is combined or replaced with a more secular meal-opening toast for many. The home-centered, active family games that were once prevalent (Applebaum 1984) are often replaced by the passive spectacle of professional sports and nationally broadcast parades hosted by department stores and filled with commercial floats. Hosting by the grandparent’s household is giving way to hosting by the middle generation. And, most directly important for an understanding of contemporary consumer culture, a profusion of branded products rather than foods produced by the household are consumed. Through taken-for granted acceptance of changes, participants perceive universalism in their celebrations when, in fact, the praxis of their feasting is particular to contemporary times and household groups.

Melanie Wallendorf & Eric J. Arnold, “‘We Gather Together’: Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day”, The Journal of Consumer Research 18, No. 1 (June 1991), 24.

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How football began to get played on Thanksgiving

Lower-class men had been making merry and poking fun at their betters for centuries, on Thanksgiving and other holidays. In the late 1880s, the upper class developed its own form of misrule in their exuberance after Thanksgiving Day football games. An organization run by college students, the Intercollegiate Football Association, scheduled its first championship game on Thanksgiving Day in 1876. Two decades later the Chicago Tribune estimated that about 10,000 high school and college teams, and those of athletic clubs were playing football on Thanksgiving Day.

The Thanksgiving Day game was controversial from the beginning. Walter Camp, the “father” of modern football, argued that the fact that fans willingly gave up – or in some cases, postponed – their Thanksgiving dinner to cheer for their team showed the popularity of the game. To ministers and Ethelbret Warfield, president of Lafayette College, football on Thanksgiving desecrated “a great national feast-day.” Warfield regarded Thanksgiving as a day to give thanks to God for the blessings of “the Christian home” and “citizenship.” He believed that whooping college boys, storming theaters, starting fights at “saloons, dancehalls, and worse” were taking the first steps in a life of “temptation and vice.” The collegians were also getting themselves arrested, disrupting Broadway performances, and throwing beer mugs and glasses at high-stepping showgirls. In 1894, Ivy League college presidents, embarrassed by all this, shifted the day of the season-ending game to the Saturday before Thanksgiving, moved the location from Manhattan to college grounds, and insisted that students return to campus after the game had finished.

Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States”, Journal of Social History 32, No. 4 (Summer 1999), 777.

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The Macy’s Parade Has Existed in Competition with Football Games on Thanksgiving Since the 1920s

Macy’s parade, even in the 1920s, existed not in the shadow of the family feast or the church service, but in competition with the afternoon football game. Football was clearly the more significant of the two forms of out-of-home entertainment, as changes in the timing of Macy’s parade in the 1920s indicate. Initially Macy’s parade offended patriotic groups, who decried a spectacle on “a national and essentially religious holiday.” Macy’s hired a public relations man, who decided that the critics could be placated if the parade in the morning was postponed until at least after church services had ended. The parade, pushed back to the afternoon, began at the same time as the kickoff for most football games. Customers and football fans complained. By the late 1920s, Macy’s had returned to an early morning parade, presumably so as not to compete with afternoon football games.

Elizabeth Pleck, “The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States”, Journal of Social History 32, No. 4 (Summer 1999), 782.

The era of the religious Right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of…

The era of the religious Right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of a style of ideological conservatism that reached high points in 1980 and 1994 but suffered a series of decisive – and I believe fatal – setbacks during George W. Bush’s second term. The end of the religious Right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, it is a sign of a new reformation among Christians – Warren and Cizik are representative figures – who are disentangling their great movement from a political machine. This will require liberals and conservatives alike to abandon their sometimes narrow views of who evangelicals are and what they believe.

E.J. Dionne Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 4-5.

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The Different Jewish Approaches of Obama and Booker

When Obama addresses Jewish audiences, he comes across as a liberal rabbi. He presents Jewish values as synonymous with progressive politics and draws heavily upon American Jewish history, name-dropping noted civil rights rabbinic activists like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joachim Prinz. The American story, he seems to say, is the Jewish story—an ever-advancing universalistic ethic.

Booker, on the other hand, though committed to similarly liberal ends, presents more like his Orthodox mentors. He leans on traditional texts, from the weekly Torah portion to the Pirkei Avot, and is more likely to reference Hillel than Heschel. He keeps a stack of religious books on his desk, including an Artscroll Tanakh—the imprint of Orthodoxy’s most prolific publisher. When speaking Hebrew, his pronunciation sometimes slips into Ashkenazic, rather than the Sephardic-inflected tones of Modern Hebrew favored by non-Orthodox Jewry. And like his Chabad companions, Booker does not conflate Judaism with one particular political platform but rather plays up its spiritual uniqueness.

It would be tempting to dismiss these affectations as accidents of proximity, the incidental result of Obama and Booker being introduced to Judaism by different teachers. But they are not. They reflect deep-rooted divergences in both men’s political outlooks. …

Barack Obama has built his political career on downplaying difference. …

But where Obama conflates, Booker differentiates. He celebrates the sharp edges of identity that Obama works to soften—even when they are in tension with his own ideals. … He respects the dignity of difference, and the integrity of identity, which endears him even to those—like many in the Orthodox community—who do not share his progressive political views.

Yair Rosenberg, “New Jersey Senate Candidate Cory Booker Knows His Torah. So What?”  Tablet (12 August 2013) {http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/140767/cory-bookers-jewish-story?all=1}

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Force-backed humanitarianism may have been a more feasible project in the bipolar era of the Cold War

Force-backed humanitarianism, which relies on rational influence over events in other countries, may have been a more feasible project in the bipolar era of the Cold War, with its relatively defined and stable web of alliances and proxies. Today, a multitude of newly empowered actors make a series of choices – the Muslim Brotherhood President appeasing the military, say, or liberal Egyptians backing a coup – that have wholly unpredictable consequences.

Pankaj Mishra, “Unholy Alliances”, The New Yorker (23 September 2013), 114.

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The Assyria of yesterday could, for modern Israel, be Turkey, Iran, India or China tomorrow

The Assyria of yesterday could, for modern Israel, be Turkey, Iran, India or China tomorrow. Being initially called in to resolve local differences or protect Israel from an attack by an immediate neighbor, they may find the temptation to meddle in Israeli affairs too great to resist. Perhaps none of these states would actually seek to control the Jewish state. Economic influence, however, is an entirely different matter, and a powerful outsider, initially viewed as a protector, might impose one-sided trade or economic agreements on a weakened Israel. The fact that the United States has never done so, despite Israel’s dependence on Washington for its support in so many ways, simply underscores the exceptionality of the United States and its unique role as a superpower. Others simply will not behave the same way.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 13-14.

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There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw…

The war is now being waged by petty warlords and dangerous extremists of every sort: Taliban-style Salafist fanatics who beat and kill even devout Sunnis because they fail to ape their alien ways; Sunni extremists who have been murdering innocent Alawites and Christians merely because of their religion; and jihadis from Iraq and all over the world who have advertised their intention to turn Syria into a base for global jihad aimed at Europe and the United States.

Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

Non-Sunni Syrians can expect only social exclusion or even outright massacre if the rebels win, while the nonfundamentalist Sunni majority would face renewed political oppression if Mr. Assad wins. And if the rebels win, moderate Sunnis would be politically marginalized under fundamentalist rulers, who would also impose draconian prohibitions.

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy so far. Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.

That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East.

A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.

Edward N. Luttwak, “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins”, The New York Times (25 August 2013), SR 4.

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A Couple of Realities Regarding the Middle East…

…too often we forget that the people in these countries are not just objects. They are subjects; they have agency. South Africa had a moderate post-apartheid experience because of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. Japan rebuilt itself as a modern nation in the late 19th century because its leaders recognized their country was lagging behind the West and asked themselves, “What’s wrong with us?” Outsiders can amplify such positive trends, but the local people have to want to own it.

As that reality has sunk in, so has another reality, which the American public intuits: Our rising energy efficiency, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are making us much less dependent on the Middle East for oil and gas. The Middle East has gone from an addiction to a distraction.

Thomas L. Friedman, “Foreign Policy by Whisper and Nudge”, The New York Times (25 August 2013), SR 11.

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A Simple Political Divide

…the real division in the nation: between those who want to have a culture war and those who don’t. At election time, political candidates need simultaneously to “rally the base”, which includes a heavy quotient of culture warriors, and to “appeal to the center”, meaning the majority (often left of center on economic issues), which sees health care, education, jobs, taxes, and national security as central concerns trumping gay marriage or abortion. The result is a strained, dysfunctional, and often dishonest political dialogue based on symbolic utterances. Hot-button questions that rally particular sectors of the electorate – and draw listeners and viewers to confrontational radio and television programs – preempt serious discussion of what ails American culture and society.

E.J. Dionne Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 50.