Today's holiday is the latest flashpoint in pandemic politics
The War on Christmas came early in this year of the novel coronavirus. Traditionally, this annual cultural skirmish doesn’t really get going until sometime after the 1st December, starting with the now-familiar opening salvo of someone griping on Twitter about the religiosity of the Starbucks holiday cups (spoiler: for those who care about this sort of thing, they are never religious enough.) But with thanks to these unprecedented and very stupid times, the conflict has now jumped a full month ahead of schedule and landed squarely on Thanksgiving.
Once the pandemic became politicised, it was only a matter of time until everything else did, too, including family gatherings. The same tribal fault lines that separate the mask-defiers from the social distance warriors have emerged around what has, in recent history, already turned into a politically-fraught holiday.
Back in 2012, the American press cautioned readers not to let election drama spoil the meal (“You can talk politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table, just be respectful of others.”) By 2018, the notion of keeping things civil had been replaced by stern remonstrances that confronting our Trump-supporting family members over their misspent votes was a civic, nay, moral duty. This on top of the fact that Thanksgiving itself has long been poised to join Columbus Day in the annals of problematic holidays: considering how things ended for the natives with whom the first colonists dined, should we even be celebrating at all?
And now, a pandemic — which has managed to estrange us more thoroughly than a harrowing and disputed election ever could. One side gorges itself on viral, too-good-to-verify narratives of Covid-denying red staters gasping “It isn’t real!” as they die; the other stages a contemporary Texas Revolution for the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of stuffing.
Nominally, this seems like yet another front in America’s all-too-familiar culture wars. It’s liberal smugness versus redneck ignorance, “diversity and inclusion” versus “family values”, urban versus rural. The MSNBC-watching, blue-haired, blue-check elites already wanted to cancel Thanksgiving for political reasons and are only too happy to have an excuse to do so while tarring any dissenters as science-denying grandma killers. If political purity was previously measured by one’s willingness to lambast Uncle Trumpkin for his bad opinions between bites of mashed potato, this year, the best way to prove one’s progressive bona fides is to refuse to enter his home at all.
This, of course, outrages those Bible-banging GOP loyalists, with their front yards adorned with a tacky Walmart inflatable Santa (right next to the weather-worn TRUMP sign that stays up all year round.)
But there’s a big gap between performance and reality, on both sides: US airports on the weekend before Thanksgiving have been their busiest since March, and it’s not just Republicans traveling. Backyards across the country, in red and blue counties alike, are being set up for safe outdoor dining. Covid testing centres are crammed with people for whom a negative diagnosis is permission to go home hug their grandparents.
For all our posturing on social media, the desire to be together is something Americans of all stripes still share — as is the desire to thumb our noses at meddlesome, hypocritical lawmakers who try to tell us what to do in the privacy of our own homes.