Home > ethics, philosophy > The Past and Today’s Repast

The Past and Today’s Repast

Today, Thanksgiving, is traditionally a day of remembrance, family, and friends in the United States. We celebrate our community, our lives, and our families in repast and a break from work. But, in this day of community and remembrance, we naturally look to the past, and this celebration is stained by the bloody history of its tradition.

In school, we are taught that Thanksgiving is a traditional celebration that began in the seventeenth century when the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock came together with the Native Americans and dined in a multi-day feast. Standing in stark and morbid contrast to this is the treatment the Native American peoples received at the hand of the European invaders and colonizers, with millions slain by direct murder and disease. Entire cultures were absorbed into the American leviathan and have vanished in our relentless pursuit of the manifest destiny of the most powerful nation in recorded history.

And so the so-called intellectuals, the liberals, the culturally-sensitive remind us annually

But those of us who remember that history are not the culprits. It is not ours, as individuals, to make recompense for that sin. These are crimes and actions committed by men in a day gone past. The sins of the fathers being visited on the sons is an ethic of a more barbarous era, neither ethically nor culturally fitting in a world with a more refined sense of justice than “an eye for an eye.”

And so the so-called patriots, the conservative, the nationally-proud retort annually.

Now, perhaps it is the duty of the American government to respond with reparations and apology, with the argument being that the government is a continuously single entity, and therefore is at all times responsible for all crimes it commits in the past. I am, personally, partial to this understanding, but I will leave that to other pundits, essayists, and theorists. Today I’m writing about the people, not the government. And the people are right. Both people. Our national and cultural progenitors fucked up. Big time. Our national and cultural history will forever be marred by the insensitive and barbaric actions of the past. But that’s not our fault, nor is it our responsibility to right the past wrong, and to demand that the people of America, the modern privileged Caucasian, pay the piper any price—be that price material sacrifice or emotional guilt—for this misdeed is a demand unworthy of the quality of the mind that usually utters that demand.

However, being reminded of this past does serve to remind us of a responsibility we do have. It is our intrinsic personal and collective responsibility to refuse to allow those kinds of crimes to be committed again. We have an absolute ethical mandate to never allow ourselves—individually or culturally—to commit such crimes again, and a relative ethical obligation to prevent it from happening wherever we see it.

We must remember, though, that this responsibility does not stem from a reparative sense of justice. We do not have this responsibility because we must atone for the past. We have the responsibility because we inherently have this responsibility, as human beings and as social agents. The past can serve to broaden our awareness of the potential space of ethical dilemmas, but that previous-generational past should not have any moral bearing on our current course of action nor on our own personal emotional states.

We are not responsible for the sins of our fathers. The sins of our fathers, however, can guide us in opening our awarenesses to inform action of the now and teaching of our children.

Today is a day of celebration, of community, and of feasting. Let us celebrate, then, our abundance and our family and our joy. Let us not taint our celebrations with the guilt—either received or delivered—of sins that are not our own, and let us be thankful on this day that we are in a material position to allow us to act and think ethically.

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Categories: ethics, philosophy
  1. November 28, 2010 at 3:51 am

    Hmm, interesting. We’re back with the father metaphor and family responsibility again aren’t we? David Miller has some very nuanced thoughts about this: http://philosophybites.com/2008/04/david-miller-on.html

  2. Sam Eastham
    July 17, 2011 at 6:23 am

    You and I are benefiting from the sins of a long past generation, while Native Americans continue to suffer from oppression and a lower socioeconomic status. But I suppose we should let the past be the past, and continue to reap the benefits. After all, we aren’t responsible, so why not continue to passively enjoy the benefits? Celebrate the abundance of being a white male in the United States! No worries :)

  3. July 17, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Absolutely, we should celebrate the abundance of being a white male in the United States. And with that abundance, we should strive to improve the lot of those around us, we should strive to make the world a better place. My point is not, “it wasn’t us what did it, so fuck the red man,” but rather that it is our duty to help simply because it is our duty to help, and we twist ourselves psychologically and morally if we act out of a sense of reparative justice, instead of out of a sense of simple compassion.

  4. Sam Eastham
    July 17, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    It seems to me that it is possible, and sensible, to act out of both reasons (simple moral duty and reparative justice). To give an extremely simplified example:
    Say your father broke into another man’s house, successfully stole all of his money and belongings, and then killed him, leaving his son an orphan. Your father got away with it and became extremely rich. His son is now homeless, and your dad bequeathed all of his riches to you (let’s presume he has passed away, for the sake of parallels). You are perfectly aware of where these riches came from. If you are just acting out of a moral obligation to help out others, I think you would not feel compelled to give all of that money and riches back to the homeless son, but in fact, that is what he is owed, because it was his to begin with. I believe this is what you refer to as “material sacrifice” in your writing, but it’s not a sacrifice, because it’s not yours to begin with. Only after giving back the stolen goods that we continue to profit and thrive off of, should we feel relieved of guilt and obligation. Improving the lot of those around us isn’t limited to making sure that past injustices don’t happen again. It also involves making sure that justice prevails. Which is more just: keeping the stolen goods, or giving them back?

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