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  • Writer's pictureUriel

A Debt of Gratitude

How Thanksgiving turned into a celebration of our capitalist cargo cult, a media-full version of my piece in Psychology Today

What on earth are we doing here? Nevo, my son, asked me, and I asked myself, as we were walking uptown from 33rd street, bewildered by how many people were crammed, like us, to get a glimpse of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. We were just two of about three million spectators, on a cold sunny day, along 2.5 miles of public viewing, and being barely 6ft tall, I mostly had to settle for watching some colossal helium balloons, and a handful of the people holding them by rope. And then it happened. Whether triggered by the slightly morose son by my hand, or a blazing sun in my eyes, or a wild wind on my face, my mind started playing some nasty tricks on me: Rather than seeing the people leading the balloons, I saw the balloons controlling them like puppets. Was I completely delusional?

Perhaps no more than usual. Still, with my remaining frozen brain cells I was trying to make sense of that crowded parade. Surely the pandemic has something to do with it, social distancing creating an emotional void many were eager to fill. But of course, the Macy’s Parade didn’t have to await a pandemic to get massively popular. Something else was going on.

The taming of Thanksgiving

I figured it has to do with Thanksgiving itself. Far from being just another harvest festival, the roots of the American Thanksgiving are heavily political. The Puritan Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were the first to hold it, in the fall of 1621.

Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1863
Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1863

But it was Lincoln, some 242 years later, amidst the Civil War, who nationalized this northern celebration. Making it a symbol for the coveted unity, Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as the day when God would be thanked “as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” (Lincoln pulled the same trick with Christmas, bringing a largely southern celebration to the North).

Thanking God with one American heart did not help Lincoln die of old age, but it certainly became a national moment, patching over cleavages of race, land, and class. Still, other symbols emerged to remind us, if unwittingly, of these divides, even on Thanksgiving. Around 1870 Americans started to introduce Ragamuffin Day on Thanksgiving, with children dressed as beggars going from door to door asking for candy or money.

The NYC Ragamuffin parade took a sinister turn during the Great Depression. Now the beggar costumes displayed the reality they were meant to conceal. It was too much. The parade needed to be tamed, becoming beggar-free. The Madison Square Boys Club, for example, paraded under the banner “American boys do not beg.”

The Madison Square Boys Club, American boys do not beg

The backlash gradually marginalized Ragamuffin, until, in the 1950s, it was banished to Halloween, and the NYC Thanksgiving parade was overtaken by Macy’s.

Happy, thankful people

Who’s thanking who on this parade? Clearly not God. While the helium balloons are inflated with upward aspirations, they were kept tightly in check. Perhaps then it’s Macy’s thanking people, or rather its consumers. This would make sense: without their currency, Macy’s will have nothing to flaunt about.

But this is not how it felt on the parade. Macy’s was giving something to us – a spectacle – and we were supposed to be thanking it, for the good time. And supposedly for good reason. After all, consider military parades. The army doesn’t thank us. It boasts its might so we can thank it, and the government, for protecting us.

“Believe” sign at Macy’s Department Store, NYC, 2021
“Believe” sign at Macy’s Department Store, NYC, 2021

The same may go for Macy, and – if not the government – the economic system it embodies. If we thank the army for our lives, we can surely thank capitalism for our lifestyle. During my nightly stroll, I noticed a big “Believe” sign at Macy’s Department Store. In the capitalist cargo cult, God is not entirely out.

Helium balloons for straw planes, credit cards for cargo: Are we really that different?

Helium balloons for straw planes, credit cards for cargo: are we really that different?

That Macy and the military want us to thank them is understandable. Powerful people want our gratitude. And as a recent study notes, with great power comes less gratitude. The more people desire and gain control, the less they feel and express thankfulness. The same goes for entitlement (and its “I deserve” discursive surrogate). The more entitled you feel, the less grateful you are; and vice versa: people scoring low on narcissistic entitlement tend to be more thankful.

More insidious is the possibility that we too want to be thankful. This is partly the work of our self-help culture, instructing us how to be grateful. Another, related part is the apparent paradox of late modern life: we’re lucky to be living in the most peaceful and prosperous time in human history and are supposed to feel happy – yet all too often we don’t. How can we bridge the gap? Perhaps by realizing how fortunate we really are. And what better way to Believe it than to practice gratitude. I’m so lucky to buy this cake, this coat, this car – how can I, indeed how dare I, be unhappy?

Kiss the ring

I dare not. And gratitude quiets my guilt. It becomes a form of remuneration, paying back a debt I owe to capitalism itself. Sometimes our debt is literal, Black Friday sending bad digital omens to our bank account. We want to own but not to owe, but capitalism entwines the two through debt, hanging above our heads, perhaps like thousands of red helium balloons, one for each dollar you owe, blocking the sun.

Sometimes the debt is less material, more mental, and thus creeps deeper: capitalist gratitude both underscores our sense of being lucky and temporarily relieves us from the debt our luck implies. In some ways, thanksgiving and forgiving are alike. Both allow us to pay a debt, level the moral and emotional playing-field: thanksgiving for something good done for us, forgiving for something bad done to us.

Now that I thank you, now that I forgive you, we’re seemingly back at eye level, at least for a while. With the right people, this can be beautiful; with entities, it’s an illusion. In interpersonal relations, thanksgiving and forgiving give us another chance to make things better. But thanking a corporation, getting forgiveness from God, will never allow us to truly see eye to eye. We are bound to kiss the ring.

There is an interesting Hebrew term for being thankful, “Asir Toda,” which literally translates as “a prisoner of gratitude.” And this may well be one of the best devices we created to keep ourselves chained to capitalism. If capitalism is our modern God, it nicely follows the tricks of the old one. The main torment God inflicted on Adam and Eve transpired only after their expulsion from Eden, when He had their two sons, Cain and Abel, craving His grace, competing over the best sacrificial thanksgiving. How that story ended we all know.

Titian, Cain and Abel, 1545
Titian, Cain and Abel, 1545

Can we compromise? Let’s have Thanksgiving Day for appreciating, for whatever reason, all those entities, be it God, ideology or corporation, using the other days of the year to offer honest gratitude to the good people in our lives. As cliches go, there are worse than the one advising us to reflectively, not reflexively, say “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Sorry.” We might as well start today.

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Aglaia Venters
Aglaia Venters
Nov 30, 2022

Unfortunately, people figured out how to use G-d as a foolproof marketing strategy many centuries back. It often works, too—very effective means of making people grovel with gratitude and/or beg fof forgiveness by handing over their paychecks.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. One example of how the strategy backfired could be the “ungrateful freedmen” who “turned against“ their former “benevolent masters” (who considered themselves to be the ”real victims” of the situation). In the South, G-d was supposed to be a marketing strategy for convincing people even to hand over their rights to be human, willingly and with gratitude, to brutal social and economic social system. It convinced enough white southerners to keep them from plotting wit…

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