Thanksgiving 2006 (II)
Bill Long 11/24/06
Thanksgiving and American Culture
The previous essay told a story using Thanksgiving travel as a window into the reality of American cultural change in the last 50 years. This essay probes further into how we define private and public space in America, using the Thanksgiving Holiday as a barometer of change.
Stretching Vacations/Working Harder
The central paradox I do not understand in America is whether we are working harder or taking more time off as time goes on. Many measures of productivity tend to indicate we are working harder. For example, in my old law firm--a prominent NW firm--the "old tradition" used to be that you billed about 1500 to 1600 hours a year. When I began, the numbers had been increased to about 1850 per year, though one could use about 50 of those hours on "pro bono" tasks. Within a year or two after I left in 2003, however, the expectation was for lawyers to bill more than 2000 hours per year.
Yet, at the same time, we seem to be taking off larger and larger blocks of time. That is, it used to be that one would try to accomplish some work between Christmas and New Year's Day, but now it is almost universally understood that very little work gets done in that week/10 days. Almost no law firm is open the day after Thanksgiving; indeed, as I argued in the previous essay, the pressure is growing to make the week of Thanksgiving a vacation week. Several school districts have classes only through Tuesday or Monday or, as seems ineluctable, only through the previous Friday. Professional associations meet over the weekend before Thanksgiving, stretching out the meetings until Monday or Tuesday, thus requiring the cancellation of pre-Thanksgiving classes. So, we are building towards a sort of enforced two-week vacation in America each year.
The Role of Sports/Business
Whenever there is a potential paradox in the American psyche, a sense that more is being demanded even while the time is less, sports rush in to fill the vacuum created either in fact or in our mind. It used to be that there was one professional football game on Thanksgiving Day. Now, there are three. We now have early season college basketball tournaments without number beginning the weekend before Thanksgiving and extending to the day after Thanksgiving. College football, though taking a break on Thanksgiving Day, is played on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Though we celebrate the virtues of family and spend time with family and friends on that day, the TV networks give us sports in abundance on holidays because they realize that spending time with family is itself a challenging proposition for so many people. Movie theaters, which formerly were closed on holidays, now open earlier and earlier on the holiday itself, another reminder that people need escape from the forced fellowship of familial bonding on those occasions. And businesses are faced with paradoxical realites. On the one hand, there is the pressure to close the business during Thanksgiving week (or at least on the Friday after Thanksgiving) because the family is around--it got stuck in Thanksgiving traffic to make it to you, so you might as well take off Friday to deal with the relatives--but, at the same time, the "big box" retailers are trying to erode the sacredness of the holiday by pushing back sales/specials until the holiday itself.
The American Tension
All of this, it seems, provides great fodder for cultural reflection. We have evolved in our culture from the creation or invention of the weekend, courtesy of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent workers' rights laws in the early 20th century, to the creation of weeks off from work, weeks that are getting forced on us. But even though we have these weeks off and increasingly are seeking long weekends (either through 4 ten-hour work days or inventing new Holidays to put on Fridays or Mondays), we also take the office with us wherever we go. What this means is that the traditional barrier between work and home, between labor and leisure, is no longer a barrier. Perhaps that is a good thing, since then work and leisure can be woven seamlessly (right!) into our lives.
But the larger issue implicated in all of this is the unclear relationship of public and private spaces in our lives. In his brilliant 2003 study entitled Public Vision, Private Lives, Brown University Religious Studies professor Mark S. Cladis uses the works of the quirky but brilliant French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to probe the issue of the relationship of public and private space in our lives. Though anything but a definitive "solution" to that problem, as Cladis himself admits, it is a searching examination of how the mental furniture in our lives, especially the ideas of public and private, lead to enormous uncertainty and anxiety as we try to define our work, our leisure, our intimacy, our solitude and our place in the world.
And certainly that is the message of Thanksgiving this year. We may, as usual, stand up at Church or in the family gathering and solemly intone, with tears and hugs, how much we are grateful for the other. No doubt we are sincere in these statements, as we know or will know the value of family and friends in rescuing us when life implodes on us. But in all the celebratory times, of renewed affection and love, there is the underlying question that is not addressed--who am I in my public and private self? How do I try to integrate the demands on me as parent, as child, as retired person, as wage-earner, with the tugs on my heart to explore hitherto unexplored personal realms of freedom?
Or, how do I conceptuallize my duty as a citizen in this American Republic, where not enough citizens, including myself, have spoken clearly enough in the last five years about our own perception of the "crisis" facing the world and the United States and what we ought to do about it? How does this duty as citizen relate to my longing in the middle of my days to set aside all responsibilities that fall on me and simply retreat into the recesses of my mind or into my favorite places on God's green earth and drink deeply of nature and my own thoughts and special times with the most special creatures that God has brought into my life over the years?
If we don't face and try to answer these questions as individuals, American culture will suggest answers for us. These answers are simple but clear. You are a consumer. You need to work hard. You need to take off time from work. You need to watch all the sports, buy all the gifts, eat all the food, and then go back to work so you can do it all again.
The challenge of Thanksgiving this year, friends, is whether we will listen to the cultural voices around us as we define our future or whether we will have the courage to explore the limits and connections of our personal private and public spaces, as we negotiate our freedom and our individual and collective destinies.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long