Six Things to Be Grateful for This Thanksgiving

©2019 Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers Business School

The Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, which occurs over a long weekend, brings a respite, a breathing space that allows moments for introspection. I begin this piece with a brief history, followed by six things we all should be grateful for.


“What Should We Be Grateful for?” A Look Back in Time

The history of the United States and its current politics causes much dismay among sections of the public. I have some friends abroad who now express reluctance even to visit the US as tourists. The Wampanoag[1] tribes that lived around Plimouth (as it was when spelled then, hereafter spelled “Plymouth,” near where the Mayflower ship carrying English settlers landed in 1620) look upon Thanksgiving Day with dismay. Some use the defiant slogan “No Thanks – No Giving” against the colonization of their territory.[2]

However, we would have no Thanksgiving if not for the Native American tribes, with whom the English settlers once had not only a friendship, but on whom they depended for their very survival.

The First Thanksgiving Feast: Cooperation and Friendship Across Cultures

The first Thanksgiving feast in autumn 1621 is actually a heartening story of cooperation and friendship across cultures. The English settlers, a mixed lot of Calvinist zealots seeking freedom of religion away from the strictures of the official Anglican Church, and ne’er-do-wells seeking refuge from punishment at home, had arrived too late in the autumn of 1620 to plant any crops. By the next spring, half of the 100 or so settlers had died from starvation and diseases, since most of them were tailors, blacksmiths, or printers from cities and had no idea how to farm or survive in what appeared to them to be an uninhabited wilderness.

To their amazement, in March 1621,[3] out from the cold, dark woods surrounding their settlement, stepped an English-speaking Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum (or “Squanto” as he was known to the English). Squanto taught the settlers how to fish, plant a strange crop called corn (maize), and what to hunt. The governor of Plymouth Colony, John Carver, and Wampanoag supreme chief, Ousamequin (“Massasoit” to the English), became friends and declared a treaty of joint defense. The survivors were adept learners, so that by the autumn of 1621, ample food was available for the English to have a harvest celebration.

According to David Silverman’s research,2 the English fired off some loud gunshots in the air to celebrate.[4] This was heard by Ousamequin and the Wampanoag Indians, who, thinking the English were in trouble, came to their aid, only to find them feasting. The “First Thanksgiving” was then jointly celebrated by 90 Wampanoag, who brought in venison, far outnumbering the fewer than 50 surviving English who contributed corn to the meal. There was no turkey.[5]

The Next 50 Years: Uneasy Cooperation and Co-Existence

Ousamequin’s treaty with John Carver lasted for almost 50 years. But cultural differences emerged. To the Indians, all land was common property. There were no deeds, or titles, to plots of land. Once soil nutrients were exhausted, tribes moved their villages to another location and farmed there.

To the Wampanoags, fixed boundaries and private property meant nothing. But to the English, land ownership meant fixed boundaries or plots, titles held secure by rule-of-law. With thousands more English arriving, the inevitable tussles over land ensued. The Indians felt increasingly hemmed in, and displaced, by the English landholdings.

Moreover, the newer arrivals had no memory of the earlier cooperation and harmony between the groups and looked upon the Indians as savages. To the Wampanoag, the English appeared to be cold, indifferent, rigid, hypocritical, and uncaring people.

Thanks – or No-Thanks?

After the death of Ousamequin (Massasoit), who had striven to retain harmony for 50 years, tensions boiled over in a large-scale war. Massasoit’s son, nicknamed “Philip,” organized a rebellion in 1675 called “King Philip’s War.” What most Americans celebrating their holiday do not know is that this war killed thousands, and it remains one of the bloodiest encounters in US history. Atrocities on both sides occurred, including cutting up the body of Philip, his parts hung from trees. Philip’s head was impaled on a pike and displayed outside the main gate to Plymouth, where it remained for 20 years.

Some descendants of the Wampanoag today echo the bitter memories of being displaced from their land after their forefathers were decimated and displaced. To some of them, the celebration by the rest of the US evokes the slogan on the tee-shirt in the image above: “No Thanks – No Giving.”

“What Should We Be Grateful for?” A List of Six for Today

1) American Ideals (which have now become universal)

From America’s murky and cruel past has emerged some of the noblest ideals and aspirations for all humankind. We cannot forget the horrors of slavery or the displacement of native populations; but – like the lotus that grows out of the mud – from this morass emerged the notions of participatory mass democracy,[6] freedom of religion and speech, a blending of genes and cultures,[7] mobility and opportunity, and the right of dissent without fear. (In many other nations, if citizens try to oppose their president or leader – even in the 21st century – dissenters end up in jail…or the graveyard.)

2) Tolerance

The US, and most of the world today, is a far more tolerant and accommodating place than a half century ago. The civil rights movement in 1960s America, aided by the rule of law and legislation, has reduced discrimination considerably. I am thrilled to visit places such as Atlanta, Georgia, and seeing a thriving, entrepreneurial, educated Black middle class espousing traditional American values. Of course, the majority of African Americans remain relatively disadvantaged economically. But we can be grateful for the progress.

Two decades ago, hardly any Indian Americans like me were in US academia, other professions, or government. In 1980, when my first article was accepted in the Journal of International Business Studies (the premier journal in the International Business field), I agonized over my bio-sketch, wondering whether to reveal that I had worked for an Indian company. Applying for some jobs was out of the question. Today, Indian-origin academics such as Abhijit Bannerjee (MIT) are awarded the Nobel Prize (in Economic Sciences); business professionals such as Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Sunder Pichai (Google), and Shantanu Narayen (Adobe) are sought after as corporate leaders; and politicians such as Bobby Jindal (former governor of Louisiana) and Nikki Haley (former governor of South Carolina and former US ambassador to the United Nations) have risen high in the political sphere.

In the world at large, increased globalization, travel (airline passengers now exceed 4 billion per year),[8] and the internet have increased acceptance and tolerance greatly. Still, we must recognize that some pushback still spoils the landscape, manifested in phenomena such as nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and the plight of many refugees and civilians living in peril in hot spots around the world. More work needs to be done despite our progress.

3) Unprecedented 70 Years of Prosperity and Peace

The 70 years since 1945 have witnessed a remarkable period of world peace, unprecedented in human history, despite the ravages of the terrorist slaughters and bombed-out villages we see on social media or the evening television news, which seem to belie this fact. By any measure, the number of conflicts, and the number of humans experiencing warlike conditions, has shrunk to its lowest levels ever.[9] The increase in longevity, the global trend toward smaller families, virtual elimination of famine, and increased income in all nations has led to a relative prosperity level, unknown in the past.

Part of this could be attributed to Pax Americana, or the hegemony wielded by US power, and its influence in the world. But perhaps more importantly, rising education and enlightenment worldwide have resulted in a rules-based world order (admittedly fragile) where international relations and global commerce are governed by common understanding of international conduct.[10]

4) Globalization Continues

The Brexiteers don’t like it. Nigel Farage, Marine LePen, and Vladimir Putin don’t like it. Protectionists who levy tariffs view it with alarm. Firms competing with imported goods dislike it. But globalization continues to advance. After a lull between 2008 and 2013, studies at McKinsey & Co. and New York University[11] show that indices of globalization in 2018 are at their highest levels, despite the rise in trade and commercial tensions between some nations.

In previous articles and blog posts, I have recognized the downsides of globalization; but its overall net benefits, on average, cannot be denied.[12]

5) Poverty Reduction

Among the happy news items to be grateful for today is the enormous reduction in poverty worldwide. The World Bank sets the criterion for absolutely grinding poverty at $1.90 per person per day. (The Bank periodically adjusts this for inflation or cost-of-living.) Using this index, the percentage of humanity living in grinding poverty as recently as 1980 was 44 percent. By 2016, despite a large increase in world population (now 7.6 billion souls), the percentage of humans in abject poverty is below 9 percent.

6) We Are Building a Global Civilization and a Global Consciousness

For the first time in history, we are seeing the beginning of a world civilization. Witness converging apparel (e.g., jeans worn in all nations), lifestyles (greater affluence and acquisition, entertainment), and diets (the ubiquity of the Big Mac and “fusion” food; and the US exports thousands of turkeys to Singapore each November). But more fundamentally, we are seeing a convergence in values. Populations around the world are demanding greater accountability, participation, government services, education, and consumer goods. In the remotest Indian or African villages, a hole-in-the-wall “kirana” shop, carrying an inventory of no more than 300 items, will include basic products such as soap, chocolate, or toothpaste from Unilever or Nestle.[13]

Half the human population (3.8 billion) now uses mobile phones. Connecting to the internet and social media is spurring a burgeoning global consciousness. Scenes of injustices and human rights violations go viral. The greater ease of communications makes mass mobilization of protests more frequent.

Thanks to the internet, democratic values, demands for justice or equality, and relief from oppression spread more quickly. While malpractices persist, at the same time demands for ethical behavior on the part of governments and corporations have grown. For example, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is spreading to the boardrooms of firms in many nations.

Scientific discoveries, control of diseases, mutual aid in natural disasters, and the almost universal cry against global warming are all manifestations of an emerging global cooperation and consensus.

Conclusion

We are living in a thrilling period of human history. The average person has much to be grateful for. Not just because his/her physical well-being is immeasurably better than just one or two generations ago, but because he/she is educationally and spiritually more enlightened.

Of course, we have no guarantee of continued progress. The glories of Rome, ChangAn, and Pataliputra were followed by dark ages. But I, for one, remain profoundly grateful on Thanksgiving Day…and am giving many thanks, indeed.

__________________________

The featured cornucopia and old-fashioned turkey image are from Thanksgiving Day 2019: Why Is Thanksgiving So Late This Year? by Catherine Boeckmann, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, November 17, 2019.

References

[1] The Algonquian-speaking Wampanoag were a coalition of related tribes that lived in what today is Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

[2] A balanced history, highlighting the Wampanoag perspective, can be found in This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, November 2019.

[3] See my earlier post The Globalization of Thanksgiving Day, as well as Timetoast’s Squanto Timeline.

[4] Harvest celebrations in many cultures, such as Independence Day in the US and Diwali in India, are accompanied by noise and firecrackers.

[5] There is no mention of eating today’s celebrated bird until much later, when a Mexican fowl called “turkey” was introduced from Spanish colonial sources. See my earlier post Thanksgiving Day and Globalization and the 2016 update Second Helping: Thanksgiving Day and Globalization about the origins of the bird that is the star of today’s Thanksgiving tables.

[6] See my earlier post How a Two-Minute Speech of Only 272 Words Uttered by Abraham Lincoln  Is Relevant for the World Today, where I show that universal suffrage came to its first mass bloom in the United States.

[7] In the 2010 census, only 2.9 percent of US residents were bold enough to self-identify as “multiracial.” But this is vastly misleading. Consider the fact that most “whites” in the US (55 – 65 percent of the population) have a thoroughly mixed European ancestry of German, Irish, English, Italian, and Polish, in descending order. The term “African American” is also rather vague because of the brutalities of slave ownership and because Africa itself is a diverse continent. When African American tourists visit Africa, they are looked upon by the locals as “different” in values and physical makeup.

[8] Traveler Numbers Reach New Heights, IATA Press Release, September 6, 2018.

[9] The Great Peace: Why Is Armed Conflict on the Wane? by Andrew Mack, Erik Gartzke, John Owen, and Bartosz Stanislawski. Cato Unbound, February 2011.

[10] Strengthening the Liberal World Order, a World Economic Forum white paper.

[11] The State of Globalization in a Fragile World by Steven A. Altman, Pankaj Ghemawat, and Phillip Bastian. DHL Global Connectedness Index 2018.

[12] See, for example: Contractor, Farok J., Global Leadership in an Era of Growing Nationalism, Protectionism, and Anti-Globalization. Rutgers Business Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2017. And What Is Globalization? How to Measure It and Why Many Oppose It (Part 1).

[13] How Unilever Reaches Rural Consumers in Emerging Markets by Vijay Mahajan. Harvard Business Review, December 14, 2016.

One thought on “Six Things to Be Grateful for This Thanksgiving

  1. And we are all thankful, grateful–and much enriched–by Farok Contractor’s brilliant commentaries. With warm greetings, Tagi Sagafi-nejad

    Liked by 1 person

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