From Pardoning Turkeys to Black Friday, How Did Thanksgiving Get So Off Track?

White House/Public Domain

I never much thought about National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation day—that bizarre bit of Presidential pageantry dating back at least informally to 1947 where the president "pardons" a turkey from slaughter—until this year, when I saw this Huffington Post article: Pardoned Turkey Dies Just Before Thanksgiving.

It begins:

One of the two turkeys President Barack Obama pardoned last November didn't live to see his second Thanksgiving.

Peace had served as the understudy to first bird Liberty, in case illness prevented Liberty from participating in last year's White House ceremony. Obama spared both birds, joking that this was one executive action that didn't require congressional approval. They retired to the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, where Peace died Monday.

"We had to humanely euthanize Peace yesterday afternoon after he became extremely ill over the weekend," Rebecca Aloisi, vice president for marketing at Mount Vernon, said Tuesday. She added that Liberty still "attacks his food bowl with enthusiasm."

It's not that I wasn't aware of the event. I just didn't much think about it, even though I'm a vegetarian, and highly concerned about animal welfare, writing about the horrors of factory farming many times.

But somehow the stats this year sunk in.

Just for Thanksgiving 46 million turkeys are killed, fattened and bred to be over two and half times the weight of wild turkeys by the time they are just 19 weeks old, when the natural lifespan of these birds is over a decade.

This is how we now give thanks: Divorced from the reality of our food production, both the food itself and the conditions we put food workers into. It's obviously no different at this time of year than at others, but this is the holiday when we in the United States are supposed to be giving thanks, to reflect in our individual ways on what we are thankful for. And yet we are oblivious to the absurdness of what this has all become.

We now pardon a turkey. What crime it has committed escapes me. Perhaps its very existence as a species which we perceive as lesser than our own, lesser to the degree that we claim a moral right to exploit them in most horrendous fashion, perhaps that is the crime. Pardoning is an exercise in assertion of control, of mastery, of saying we, we humans control your fate.

Of course this is all presented in a lighthearted, playful way. And many readers may think I am making too much of this. But I firmly believe I am not. I cannot think of more absurd and graphic example of our misguided relationship with our fellow species.

And then there's the day after: Black Friday.

It astounds me that this day of orgiastic shopping and worship of consumerism has become something nearing an actual national holiday. I'm awaiting the day it actually gets printed on calendars, included in official US holidays in iCal. It can't be far off—after all, unless you are in the service industry, our second-class citizens, we all have this day off anyway.

Juxtaposed against Thanksgiving, Black Friday seems the more true portrayal of what collectively have become.

After 24 hours of being nominally content with what we already have, with the people around us and the things we own, and giving thanks for that both in public and private gathering, we are encouraged to forget all that and immediately give in to our acquisitiveness, nay to expand it to the maximum, and shop, shop, shop.

And all of this done in the context of being the the most acquisitive nation on Earth, having per capita carbon emissions leading the world, consuming resources to such an unequal degree compared to our fellow humans in other nations that if everyone consumed the way we do we'd need something like 4 or 5 planets—all juxtaposed against record levels of national income inequality and billions of people living in abject poverty; and all done without the slightest bit of self-reflection or hint that there is anything abnormal it all, instead presented like this is, of course, the natural order of things.

Tags: Consumerism | Diet | Vegan | Vegetarian