Friday, November 24, 2017

What Good Old Days?

by Jean Roberta

This post is partly about synchronicity: events or items that appear close together, apparently at random, but which form patterns.

Yesterday, a venerable local restaurant, The Diplomat, put on an American Thanksgiving Day feast of butternut squash soup, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, and pumpkin pie. This was a new thing for the restaurant, which has been a downtown landmark for many years in the prairie town of Regina, home of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and capital of the province of Saskatchewan.

Of course, Canadians don’t get a day off for American Thanksgiving. We had ours on a Monday in October.

My spouse Mirtha and I made reservations and went to the Diplomat, a dimly-lit space decorated with oil portraits of diplomats on the walls. Since my American parents passed away in 2009, Mirtha and I have both missed my mother’s American Thanksgiving family suppers, which sometimes alternated with American thanksgiving in the home of some other expatriate faculty members at the local university. My family moved north in the 1960s, as part of a mini-exodus of intellectuals during the Vietnam War era. In the fifty years since then, nearly all the academics of my parents’ generation that I knew in my youth have passed away. (One notable exception, my father’s old colleague in the Economics Department, celebrated a book launch and his 100th birthday on the same day as the feast at the Diplomat.)

So Mirtha (who is Chilean-born) and I went to the restaurant for a “family” style turkey supper. I felt nostalgic for the Thanksgivings of my childhood in Idaho. Mirtha felt nostalgic for my mother’s Thanksgiving suppers, which she attended as a guest for twenty years.

We both know that the first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was a celebration (giving thanks to a Protestant God) for a victory of white settlers over the “Indians.” It had been a slaughter.

It troubles my conscience that this has become such a characteristic American holiday. I prefer to think of Thanksgiving the way Mirtha seems to, as a simple occasion for good food and (if possible) good company.

We would have liked the companionship of some close friends or relatives, but neither of us missed my father’s rants about how much better everything was in the U.S. in the good old days before troublemakers began demanding social and legal equality for all human adults. At family get-togethers, he usually held forth on a subject dear to the heart of every American conservative: the supposed compatibility of “democracy” with extreme disparities of income, of experience, and of status. According to this logic, “democracy” requires recognition of the inherent inequality of different groups of people, and the necessity of allowing the fittest to survive at the expense of the rest.

I’ve never actually heard a conservative claim that slavery was a democratic institution, but I’ve heard it implied. And I’ve been told that the drastic racial segregation formerly enforced by “Jim Crow” laws was necessary at the time, and would help keep the peace now.

This week, I got the latest issue of BBC History magazine, to which I subscribe. It includes two short articles under the title “Why are America’s white supremacists on the march again?” A woman historian, Manisha Sinha, briefly summed up the history of American racism since the U.S. Civil War, which resulted in the end of slavery. By upper-class southern standards, the uncompensated loss of slaves was an enormous loss of property, from which that class never completely recovered. Ms. Sinha discusses that loss as a kind of founding event, and she mentions the Confederate flag as a symbol of resistance to an interracial democracy.

Dr. Michael Cullinane begins his article this way: “White supremacy tarnishes every era of United States history. Even at the outset of the government’s founding [in 1776], white privilege prevailed.” I found it refreshing to read about a familiar topic from a non-American perspective.

While reading, I couldn’t help imagining the voice of my late grandmother (dad’s mother), who had southern roots. “But those people belong with their own kind,” she would say. “It’s only natural.” She also liked to reminisce about the “good old days,” when “everybody had servants.”

Last week, when teaching a story in the “Southern Gothic” tradition to my first-year English classes, I thought about how upper-class southern nostalgia for the “gracious living” of the antebellum past has spread throughout American mainstream culture. It literally makes me nauseous.

Even while gruesome little cell-phone videos show white men in uniform killing unarmed black civilians in front of their loved ones, and this evidence is shown regularly on the news (even here in Canada), the mainstream mantra seems to be “there’s fault on both sides.” I’m sure this would be my father’s argument.

Any moral code that isn’t based on a general recognition of human rights seems to me to be no better than anarchy. Yet morally-righteous defenders of extreme oppression seem to abound everywhere, including in Canada. The only difference between nations is in which underdog is being abused.

And I haven’t even brought up violence against women. In the region where I live, this especially affects indigenous women.

Mirtha sometimes tells me she wants to get off this planet. Sometimes I want to go with her. But since we’re not really willing to die yet, we distract ourselves with the comforts of our own little life together.

Even though I sign petitions and even send letters of protest to various levels of government about the latest outrage, I know there is really nothing we can do about racism, or sexism, or classism. All these abominations seem to be getting worse rather than fading away, as the optimists of the past said they would.

In the meanwhile, there’s always good food and drink for those of us who can afford them.


  1. They never told us about the real meaning of Thanksgiving. They had the gall to pass it off as a benevolent collaboration of cultures. It wasn't until the late 70's until I heard the real story of the massacre. The colonists were starving so they razed the native village and stole their food. They had the nerve to call it a god-given Manifest Destiny and put a bounty on Native Americans, whose country they'd "discovered".

    And, yes. Souther life was so genteel. That's because Africans did all the work. After the war, poor whites were placated with the knowledge that "at least they weren't black.">

  2. Our American Thanksgiving myths aside, an autumn harvest festival has very old roots, just as our Christmas celebration builds on old traditions back through pre-Christian eras to the Roman Saturnalia and probably to pre-history. Any peoples living at a latitude with distinct seasons would celebrate the time of plenty coming before the winter when you'd better hope you had enough food stashed away to survive.

  3. I don't actually think racism, classism and sexism are getting worse. They are simply getting noticed more, called out for what they are. White policemen were killing innocent blacks back in the good old days, too. It's just that nobody talked about it. It was the way things were, and in some people's eyes, the way things were meant to be.

    Don't forget that the modern media have a magnifying effect on everything.

    1. They had public lynchings attended by families carrying picnic baskets. I don't think many of those made the official record, but the knowledge of them was certainly passed around by local word of mouth.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Daddy X, Sacchi, and Lisabet. It’s probably true enough that bigotry in general isn’t worse now than in the past (which would hardly be possible), even though the Trump administration makes it look that way. Also true that harvest festivals are an ancient tradition, though late November is very late in the season for Canada. (Saskatchewan is largely agricultural, so we should probably have our own wheat festival.)

    I sometimes wonder how much of my nostalgia for a personal and collective past has to be critiqued and revised because the pleasure of the few was based on the suffering of the many. My conscience regularly reminds me of this.

  5. I think that eventually, if we don't blow ourselves up before then, full equality will be achieved, and people will look back and laugh patronizingly, at the upheaval that bigotry and discrimination caused, back in the "bad old days." "Minorities" are not in the minority, and white folks have ruled for a long time, but are hopelessly outnumbered. They always have been, but before, everyone else "knew their place." Now they are demanding their rights, and refusing to kowtow to rich, white, old men.

    I amuse myself, knowing that my Scottish dad used to bitterly condemn the "wogs", which is nasty British slang for Indians, because they were inferior. But the little kiddies that I tutor are all born to parents born in India, and most speak at least one other language, mostly Urdu. And they adore me as much as I adore them. So in one generation, I've done away with that particular bigotry. We do what we can.


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