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The Real Thanksgiving

Eric J. Plosky

Dripping sentimentality never goes over well with the MIT crowd. Nobody ever seems to want to hear emotional appeals or plucked heartstrings, preferring instead to deal in the tangible, the euphoric, the immediate. But it’s Thanksgiving time. And that means that a little bit of emotion has its place at the table, right next to the turkey.

Turkey is, of course, the centerpiece of the good old American Thanksgiving tradition. Most of us have long since regarded the holiday as merely the first of many wintertime excuses to return home and bloat up on the bird and its attendant trimmings. This, of course, ignores the holiday’s origin, which supposedly has something to do with the utter decimation of the native American population by friendly but overzealous European pathfinders.

No, wait -- Thanksgiving is all about getting a good price on a car or a swell rate on a home mortgage.

Or is it just halfway between Halloween and Christmas?

Point is, it’s difficult to tell. Still, the holiday’s name isn’t “Turkeygorging” or “Retailfrenzy.” It’s “Thanksgiving,” which implies -- nay, dictates -- that some sort of thanks should be given on the occasion.

This should be easy for most of us, because most of us have a lot for which to be thankful. Obviously, not all of us have so far raked in $20 million on tech-stock IPOs. Remember, though, that we’re at MIT; we live in an absurdly distorted economic environment. Remind yourself that the acquisition of paper wealth is not the only prerequisite for thanks.

You may not now be able to believe it, but it’s true -- material wealth is not the only reason to live. You don’t have to have more than everyone else surrounding you in order to be grateful for what you do have. Even if you’re living in a decrepit dorm room, bereft of a $100-an-hour web-design job, lacking the latest fashion snobbery from Abercrombie & Fitch, completely devoid of the snazzy new super-duper-PC your ex-roommate has in his room down the hall, even if you’re the stupidest, ugliest, smelliest, nastiest ’Tuter, you still have a multitude of things to be thankful for.

Listen to the dialogue on campus; listen to the complaints that float about. “I can’t believe Microsoft and MIT are partnering up.” “I can’t believe I’ll have to schlep all the way to Central Square to get my special soap that La Verde’s doesn’t have anymore.” “I can’t believe the dorms are stuck with ten-megabit Ethernet.” How petty these complaints must seem to families who can barely afford the cost of a traditional Thanksgiving food orgy. Or who can’t afford it at all, and have to leave home to go to a church or a soup kitchen for their turkey. Or for those who don’t have a home to leave in the first place.

Think about that as you gorge yourself on Thanksgiving Day. Think of one of the Cambridge homeless with whom we are surely all familiar when you decide, despite being full, to scarf down one last piece of food.

(This, you see, is where the sentimentality comes in.)

I’m not trying to guilt anybody into taking action. I’m not suggesting that because everybody in the country isn’t a hundred percent hunky-dory, you’re not allowed to enjoy yourself. What really saddens me is the fact that such a level of unhappiness exists -- is allowed to exist -- in the first place.

Thousands of people across the country are caring and sympathetic, and volunteers in every city unfailingly devote themselves, year after year, to distributing Thanksgiving food and cheer to those who cannot obtain it themselves. I salute them. At the same time, however, I worry that we have come to expect volunteer efforts to somehow compensate for a severe defect in our social structure.

Structural problems demand structural solutions. Is it a necessary consequence of our economic system that in order for the majority to enjoy button-popping excess, thousands must rely solely on kindness in order to get by? Will our society forever have a class of beggars who must depend on charitable handouts? Will we always have a stratum of ‘almosts,’ a cohort of working people who labor and labor and labor but never quite seem to make it? This isn’t a problem centered on Thanksgiving, realize -- this happens every day.

Millennial America is a country suffering from bipolar disorder. At the same time we endure a level of wretched excess that would shame even the most flamboyant Gilded Age tycoon, we also have millions who can’t afford to buy a decent biography of Morgan. In an era of unprecedented wealth and previously unimaginable across-the-board prosperity, is there no way even to do so much as to ensure a full Thanksgiving plate for every American?

Think about that as you push yourself away from your Thanksgiving table. Think of the poor shmo who’s never had the chance to groan gluttonously in his life, the old man who must spend his Thanksgiving in a cold municipal shelter, friendless. This is an appeal to your emotions, yes -- not a guilt trip, but a cry for a solution. MIT is a campus full of problem-solvers. Surely one of us can find a way to make the Thanksgiving equation add up right.