Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving and Taking

Thanksgiving is a time of abundance, a festival of consumption held at harvest time when food is never more plentiful and better eaten even in extravagance than allowed to spoil and go to waste. Feasts like Thanksgiving are held all over the world and are a joyful occasion.

But there is a dark side to the holiday, a side that seems to go hand in hand with all festivals of consumption - sacrifice. With Thanksgiving as its celebrated in North America the sacrifice is fairly benign. The president makes an appearance on television, metaphorical axe in hand, several days before the holiday and spares the life of a turkey. The little ceremony ends with those concerned gathered around the bird, petting and stroking it. Remarkably, it's the only routine presidential appearance I'm aware of where he exercises his power to grant mercy. Of course for every bird to receive a presidential pardon, millions more are sacrificed. And that brings me back to my point - plenty and punishment are two p's in a pod.

We live under a regime of consumption called capitalism. The imperative is to expand. This is well understood. One aspect that might need a little more attention is not expansion as embodied in economic growth, but expansion in time. Feasts of consumption like Thanksgiving and Eid last but a day. Oktoberfest lasts sixteen days. Capitalism however fills almost the entire calendar. Thanksgiving requires the sacrifice of a single bird. Capitalism requires a continuous flow of victims, many of them human.

The creation of excess these days takes many forms: it's not just limited to buying things and using them, and there's more to it than waste and unwanted by-products. It's also the creation of works of art and the construction of monuments. At its most basic, it's idleness; at its most malevolent, war.

This gets me to the point of my post here. It comes from something I've noticed in discussions of economic and social issues like pollution, global warming, and unemployment; issues that arise out of the excesses of capitalism. What I've noticed is how easily and unquestioningly sacrifice is accepted as though it is a part of the plan. Sacrifice is there in the denial of global warming or the dismissal of concerns over pollution or untested technologies. Sacrifice is there in the contempt for the poor. It's there wherever economic expediency trumps concerns over the welfare of living things.

Sacrifice has long been part of spiritual practice, a way to satisfy the gods' taste for burnt flesh. Maybe today it's the ever extending reach of the market's invisible hand we are placating. For me, these gods are too greedy.

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