What mental image does Thanksgiving create for you? Our kindergarten craft projects and happy family traditions engrained the storybook version of events in which Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted together on the bounty of the New World, free and fair.
Later in life, we learned more about the background of Pilgrim immigrants to the New World. We learned of the quest for religious freedom, the “American experiment” best summed up in John Winthrop’s speech about the biblical City on a Hill. Thanksgiving prefigured our feeling of American exceptionalism, the greatest nation, ordained by God.
As adults, shouldn’t we have a deeper appreciation of the holiday? The Pilgrim Thanksgiving does not represent the spirit of the feast. The colonists of New England largely practiced a rigid moral code that seeped into their political and social life for centuries afterward. The result hardly mimicked the free society crafted in the later American Constitution, or honored by Abraham Lincoln in creasing the holiday. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Puritan heritage:
The chief care of the legislators [in the colonies of New England] was the maintenance of orderly conduct and good morals in the community: thus they constantly invaded the domain of conscience, and there was scarcely a sin which was not subject to magisterial censure.
We need a new way of appreciating Thanksgiving. One fresh approach, given by blog contributor David Cappella, emphasizes the rich vein of ethics, theology and psychology supporting the practice of gratitude. Gratitude and happiness are closely related, warming our hearts and Thanksgiving tables. I will look at a second fresh approach: the tradition of social corporatism.
Corporatism means more than social democracy. Corporatism can be any collaborative economic and social system in which popular government protects the long-term well-being of its constituents through regulations. On a local level, corporatism can be practiced in the effective preservation and allocation of resources. For example, Texas Electric Cooperatives are a corporatist institution with roots in the New Deal Rural Electrification Act. Yes, corporatism thrives in the heart of the Bible Belt.
Writers such as Wallace Stegner and Aldo Leopold saw corporatism as a driving theme in American history. As environmentalists, they mourned the reckless destruction of resources through mining and logging in the West. But they observed that Westerners themselves didn’t practice the rugged individualism promoted by resource exploiters. The beauty of the American frontier was the interdependence among those who settled it. Leopold described his Land Ethic:
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
From corporatism come our communities, our family networks and the ties that bring us back together to celebrate the holidays. We should not dispose of traditional social and community connections as relics of a pre-modern past. That would be a disservice. Corporatism underlies so much of our daily lives and can underlie the social and economic systems in which we participate.
This Thanksgiving, give thanks for the heritage of our communities. Decorate with Pilgrims, but honor the legacy of corporatism in society.