by Walter Kirn | Nov 22, 2023

Several years ago (I don’t remember when, exactly) the mainstream press concluded that Americans no longer possess the social wherewithal to gather unaided for Thanksgiving. According to this new journalistic consensus, which seemed to arise without cause and all at once, the hybrid secular-spiritual national holiday declared by President Lincoln in 1863 had grown too fraught to be left to amateurs, to ordinary people and their families, who now required expert help in the form of countless columns and articles if they were to sit together without incident eating cornbread stuffing and watching football.

The premise of these admonitory pieces about how to talk with friends and relatives around a pie-and-turkey-laden table is that Americans are a fragile people, individually and collectively.  Except when we’re forced to by the exigencies of attending annual festive meals, we shrink from the perils of being in mixed company, and when we find ourselves in it despite ourselves, we run the risk of freaking out.

In 2017, the Washington Post attempted to prove this gloomy thesis in a scientific-seeming feature: Politics really is ruining Thanksgiving, according to data from 10 million cellphones. The piece described a dubious feat of research by a professor in California based on the work of a creepy firm called “Safegraph” which had amassed “over 17 trillion location markers from 10 million smartphones in November 2016.” What this immense, unsuspected surveillance effort, bankrolled by heaven only knows whom, purported to show about Thanksgiving celebrants was that when they mingled across party lines (the cell-phone owners were ideologically indexed by their voting precincts), their gathering tended to break up “twenty or thirty minutes” earlier than feasts attended by folks with the same views.

Like any other literary genre, the Battleground Thanksgiving articles share certain familiar tropes and themes. They have a ritual villain, for example. It’s typically a cranky older relative hailing from a roughhewn heartland city who crudely dismays his more enlightened relatives with his blunt views on race or Trump or Covid. In an especially patronizing piece published last year in Forbes (Family Matters: How to Avoid Talking Politics Over Thanksgiving, in 5 Steps) this central-casting jerk is an “Uncle Tim from Topeka.” In a similar Washington Post piece “chatty grandparents” seem to be the culprits. Notably, the offending party or parties is never the reader of the article, who is presumed (because he’s a subscriber), to hold impeccable opinions drawn straight from the pages of the journal in question.

As shown in the title of the Forbes piece, these articles often have a “how to” flavor, complete with boldface bullet points. The concern seems to be that stressed Thanksgiving-goers faced with unvaccinated Kansas uncles will fall apart in the heat of Turkey-day conflict and need to fall back on simple, memorable guidelines. In 2022, The New York Times, in How to Approach the Holidays, suggested that would-be diners who were anxious about “a soup of Omicron variants” said to be “swirling across the US” suggested that readers “make a plan.” Item number one was to call those hosting the big meal and ask them, in these very words, “When are you testing?” and “How are you thinking about virus precautions this year?” That such clinical questioning of one’s own kin might result in the cancellation of the whole feast isn’t discussed, though it seems possible. The hardened hygiene warriors who’ve looked to the Times for guidance during COVID as some of us look to the Bible for moral instruction will likely stick to their scripts no matter what.

The purpose of these perennial articles is to relieve the tension of Thanksgiving — a tension that’s grown overwhelming, we’re to think — but what no professor armed with cell-phone data can properly estimate is the additional tension Americans suffer from showing up at their mother-in-law’s houses in media-driven states of quivering vigilance. Whatever happened to What will be, will be? If the sensitive nephew is destined to be outraged at the hardcore rantings of Uncle Tim, perhaps it’s best, for them and for us all, to have it out in a safe, forgiving setting rather than, say, in the streets of a large city.

While writing this subtle plea for a return to frank and open bickering rather than a false Thanksgiving truce, I came upon a web-based CNN piece from last year– Should you talk about politics over the holidays? –which I find deserving of special repudiation. The piece is part slideshow, part interactive quiz and ventures to make a “choose your own adventure” game of feast-day table-talk. It begins with the burning, loaded, leading question (at least for fans of CNN): “Do the people at your holiday dinner have the same opinion of President Trump?” Four answers are offered, each with its own button, and depending on which button you press, further series of questions are asked and answered, leading finally to a proposed solution for your particular social quandary.

When I ran through this exercise making different choices, I learned that they all resolved in the same way: by suggesting I hold my peace. So what was the point? To gather data, perhaps. As the geo-location cell-phone research showed, there seems to be a high degree of interest on the part of institutional powers in how Americans of different stripes assemble, or don’t assemble, in groups and families. To me, it has a monstrous, ominous feel. Since when did Thanksgiving dinner become problem warranting torrents of elite advice, behavioral scrutiny, and close analysis? And why is division — regional, generational, and political –its abiding theme? Sure, the Battleground Thanksgiving articles purport to wish us calm and happy feasts, but their cumulative practical effect is to make people want to hole up in their bedrooms planning their purchases at the next day’s sales. The lurking subtext of the articles is that Thanksgiving is an ordeal perhaps best addressed by the holiday’s abolishment.

This cranky suspicion is worthy of Uncle Tim, the grouch you aren’t supposed to want to talk to but who you will have to talk to at my Thanksgiving. Why? Because he’s me and I am he and you have been seated beside him, once again.

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