Today is the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The American mythology about Thanksgiving is almost completely fabricated, down to the fact that the Pilgrims did not wear hats with buckles on them. Moreover, if you think about it for a second, you’ll understand why. Even if there were weirdly high winds in 1600s North America, and you needed to cinch your hat on super-tight, it wouldn’t help to have a buckle so high it was where your head ended.
Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is embedded in a history of cruelty toward the continent’s Indigenous people so grim it’s enough to make you give up on humans as a species. Long ago, the filmmaker Adam McKay performed in a show at Second City in Chicago where he played Noam Chomsky as a substitute teacher who horrified kindergarteners by telling them the real story of the holiday.
So let’s concentrate instead today on the general subject of thankfulness. Science tells us that focusing on gratitude for the positive aspects of your life improves your sleep and somehow strengthens your immune system. Science also tells us it’s figured out how to weaponize anthrax, so not all of its discoveries are so hot, but the gratitude one is worth being grateful about. Here are some aspects of life today in America for which we can sincerely give thanks.
Say what you want about the United States, but we’ve definitely cracked the age-old human problem of having enough food. In fact, we’ve grown so bored with the subject that we’ve moved onto creating the food-adjacent. Do you want to eat mango-chipotle-Oreo-flavored pizza? Who knows, but in America today you have that option.
If you’re tempted to take this for granted, recall that some European colonists around the time of the first Thanksgiving faced starvation and were forced “to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them.” However frustrating you may find your relatives today, give thanks that you do not have to consume their rotting flesh.
It’s undeniable that America’s berserk overabundance of food makes the continuing existence of hunger here a brutal crime. But we could stop committing this crime any time we want, so let’s be grateful for that opportunity and seize it.
If we could talk to animals, they’d be astonished that we spend zero percent of our lives worrying about being eaten. Being constantly hunted is a core aspect of life for essentially every animal on Earth except us, and it used to be true for us too. No longer being anxious about lions ripping our children to shreds may perhaps remove a certain amount of zest from the human experience. But on net this seems like a big improvement.
If you read fantasy books as a kid, you may have been disappointed to grow up and find out the world is not full of dragons in underground lairs sitting on huge hoards of gold. But giant storehouses of wealth do exist: They’re called libraries.
This is not a metaphor or a ploy to flatter The Intercept’s librarian-heavy readership. The foundation of all societal wealth is not individuals like Elon Musk, which is clear from the fact he spends most of his time screwing around on Twitter. Rather, it’s the knowledge, generated painstakingly over centuries, of how to manipulate physical reality and best order civilization. This is the common inheritance of everyone, it’s located in libraries, and the dragon librarians love when you check out as much wealth as possible.
Infections from minor injuries used to kill people constantly, and no amount of power could protect you. President Calvin Coolidge’s son got a blister on his toe in 1924 from playing tennis on the White House courts without socks. A week later, he was dead from sepsis.
The difference between then and now was brought home to me recently when I got an infected hangnail on my thumb, which swelled up alarmingly. But one prescription for antibiotics, and I no longer have to worry about my imminent demise. The instructions warn “DO NOT LIE DOWN FOR AT LEAST 10 MINUTES AFTER TAKING THIS MEDICATION,” and also that you may experience voluminous diarrhea months later, but I’m fine with this trade-off.
We should especially appreciate antibiotics right now because we haven’t understood their miraculous nature, and thanks to overuse, their effectiveness is waning precipitously. The famous writer Tom Wolfe published a book in 2016 denying the reality of evolution, and then soon afterward died of an infection caused by bacteria which had evolved to become resistant to antibiotics. This is awful, but you have to admit, also a little bit funny.
If you’re ever confused by human behavior, remember that we’re the descendants of thousands of generations of history’s horniest monkeys. This has a lot of explanatory power in almost every situation.
American culture used to be terrified by this, and tried, King Canute-like, to order the horny tide not to come in. Now we seem to be getting more relaxed about it, accepting that as long as all parties consent, anything people get up to is fine. This can only be positive in the long run — and indeed may be the only thing that can prevent global thermonuclear war.
Almost everyone has lots of teeny-tiny, translucent mites living on their face. They nestle in your hair follicles and eat the oil your skin exudes. But you aren’t born with them; most people pick them up from close contact with their parents. The touching upside here is that when your grandparents and parents die, you can contemplate that the distant descendants of their mites live on, on your face, right now.
Dean Baker is an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. If you’re not familiar with him you are absolutely missing out. He would be one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, if we cared about things such as intellect or the public.
Baker did incredible work to prevent the privatization of Social Security 20 years ago. He also was one of the few economists to warn about the housing bubble that caused the 2008 economic collapse. Most importantly, he constantly imagines creative ways to use the tools of economics and rationality to construct a better world for everyone. Given how few other economists do this, it might as well be illegal.
If you want to know more about Baker’s perspective, this interview — with someone who describes him as “one of the most important economists in the entire world” — is a good place to start.
This sounds made up, but in 1931 Thomas Edison apparently told friends this about the future: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
The recent plummet in the cost of solar power is absolutely stunning and thrilling. If global warming destroys human civilization, at least it will be because we chose destruction, rather than because a zero-carbon civilization is technologically impossible.
The great economist John Maynard Keynes wrote a profound article in 1930 called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” In it, he predicted that within 100 years, humanity’s challenge since we arrived on the scene — i.e., the brute struggle to physically survive — would be solved.
At that point, Keynes said, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
Right on time, the U.S. is reaching that point. We are more than wealthy enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for absolutely everyone. We also clearly have enough television and podcasts. Indeed, we may need to invent artificial intelligence just so something can consume all of them.
The question now is whether we’re wise enough to give everyone the chance to face Keynes’s “permanent problem” and the tools to deal with it. Maybe or maybe not, but we’re about to find out.
Thank God we’re only expected to eat this dreadful bog fruit once a year.
Once you get started thinking about gratitude, it’s hard to stop seeing things to be grateful for everywhere. Frankly, you should be grateful this article isn’t 10 times as long. If you have something that you’re particularly thankful for today, please visit me on Twitter, where I’d love to share your thoughts with the (mixed) blessing of the internet.