23 November 2012

With Malice Toward None

I remember one Thanksgiving it might have been almost fifteen years ago, I think. We were celebrating in New York, and after sharing an enormous turkey dinner with all of the trimmings and then some, my brother and I attempted to escape the somewhat suffocating environment of family, immediate or otherwise, and we headed out to find a bar in which to unwind. Yes, we were family, too, but we had a common interest to find someplace away from the business of the family gathering. But despite our serious, concerted effort, we roamed the neighborhoods without coming upon a single establishment open for business; disappointed, we returned to the family dinner with our desire for quiet and solitude disappointingly unfulfilled. We poured a brandy resignedly.
     With all due apologies to Native Americans who must view the day as one to be celebrated with tears and mourning, that evening I understood that Thanksgiving possessed a sacredness that in the United States insisted that business not proceed as usual. The streets of our town were mostly empty and the doors of businesses sealed tightly shut. Though it might be true that without family the day could be terribly lonesome (I think of Soapy in O. Henry’s story “The Cop and the Anthem”) the purity of Thanksgiving’s special character would not be violated. This holiday linked us historically to our origins as a nation however we conceive of those origins. A few restaurants remained open to feed those who preferred not to cook, or were in the midst of traveling, but for the most part the streets were empty and the store windows darkened.
     I mention this because this year on Thanksgiving not only were many of the bars open until late into the evening, but the shopping-for-Christmas was to begin (and had begun) even before the turkeys carcasses had been cleared away to become for leftovers. The dinner tables had not yet been cleared and the wine glasses still remained half-full when people jumped into their automobiles and headed out for the nearest mall. Celebrants stood at the Thanksgiving starting line and waited for the gun to start the mad shopping orgy that culminates in Christmas. Thanksgiving had ceased to be a time for reflection on our histories, a moment when some (at least) could savor the good fortunes that had befallen them, and to celebrate the company of family and friends who had sustained us and would keep us warm during the long and cold and often dark winter months. Thanksgiving had to be endured as a necessary episode before the main event would begin. Though once I considered Thanksgiving the closest thing to a national secular religious celebration, Thanksgiving had now been rendered meaningless.
     And so, as I regretted the transformation of a day I have long celebrated with some real joy into some mad capitalist frenzy of anticipated purchase and rabid consumerism, I thought of Elena Kagan. I recalled her confirmation hearing when Senator Lindsey Graham queried her on her whereabouts on Christmas Day. At first, now-Justice Kagan took his question seriously, as if he was pursuing some technical legal point that might determine his vote on her nomination, and she began to offer a response to a question that appeared to confuse her; more out of respect for the Senator than she was shown by him, she chose to consider the question seriously, and began to respond to some issue regarding what had come to be known as the Christmas Bomber. But Senator Graham, sitting lazily in his chair with his vacuous head propped up by his left hand, interrupted Kagan and said, “No, I’m just asking where you were at on Christmas!” And after what I still take as amazed laughter, Elena Kagan said, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese Restaurant.” It was the perfect response to a remarkably stupid question.
     Aside from Graham’s bad grammar, I point out the absurd inappropriateness of his question. In his presumptive query Graham invaded the privacy of the individual in demanding she reveal publically how she might have been privately celebrating a holiday; she had not been accused, after all, of being absent without leave from her position! There is an insolence in his question, an assumption that the day (for him) was somehow so special (and important) that Kagan should be able to recall not only where she was celebrating it but that this information had such significant that should be read into the public record. As if her nomination to the United States Supreme Court should depend on the nature of her celebration of Christmas, a holiday, she pertly responded, had no spiritual import to her. Senator Graham, knowing full well that Kagan was not Christian, wondered how she celebrates a Christian holiday, and of course, behind that question, rested an unspoken judgment. When Graham’s staff vetted Elena Kagan they must have learned that as a Jew she probably didn’t celebrate Christmas; and that if as a secular Jew she did in some manner celebrate the holiday nevertheless his question assumed a significance to the day that he had no right to impart to her.  By his question Senator Graham failed to attend to either the candidate or to to the more general concept of cultural diversity on which the United States purports to stand. In fact, I haven’t the foggiest notion what purpose his question might have had except to embarrass the candidate for not being Christian enough to celebrate Christmas.
     And I am disturbed not merely by the inane question of Lindsay Graham (which will have to speak volubly for itself) but the response of the other Senators to Kagan’s statement that she had spent the day in a Chinese restaurant. One senator announced that “I could have almost expected that answer,” to which Graham responded, “Me, too.” (I repeat: to what purpose the question might have been put to Kagan in the first place except to embarrass her.)  Was Senator Lindsay Graham that imprudent and ill-advised¾to put the best light on the situation¾that he either didn’t understand something very basic about the candidate that he should have previously known, or that he didn’t very much care if he showed the candidate the respect she deserved. In either case, his question speaks from a remarkable ignorance. Another senator on the committee adds to the inanity, “No other restaurants were open.” As if this comment would explain Kagan’s playful statement by an uncalled-for rationality that suggests a serious lack of wit on the part of the Senator. Yet another voice from a member of the august committee (the adjective is meant to drip with irony) that this situation had been explained to him by Jewish senator Charles Schumer, from, you know, Jew York!!
     And I am thinking on this Thanksgiving Day that I despair that these men are responsible for establishing a rule of law and reason. “Oh no, you can’t fool me, there is no Sanity Clause!”
     Well, with a large portion of the population scurrying through the shopping malls, I am off to the hopefully empty movie theater to see Spielberg’s Lincoln. It was this 16th  President who declared in the midst of civil war, that we ought “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” Oh how the mighty have fallen!


Anonymous Barbara said...

Yes, indeed, how the mighty have fallen!

So will we now have a black thursday too? And at some point will we have a black wednesday? Why don't we just start the day after Halloween? We could get in line right after trick or treating is done...the weather may be more amenable for waiting in those long lines outside the store doors! And perhaps I should just join the craze! But since I don't enjoy shopping all that much, I could open up one of those food stands and sell to the waiting shoppers! I could sell turkey tacos...in a bag...with all the trimmings! Hell, then we may as well start the craze on a tuesday!

It saddens me to not see those same waiting lines at local places of worship during the holidays--or any day for that matter. I wonder...why don't we fight more for peace and an end to war; enough for all instead of all for some; education and health rather than prison or wealth?

The word "black" in "black friday" now has a different meaning for me. Yet why don't I act? Have I fallen myself and am unaware of how I contribute to the craze? How many of us wear invisible chains and are acting in this play we call life (or reality)speaking lines and words we do not even realize we helped write?

I fear; I grieve; I just want to leave.

24 November, 2012 13:14  

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