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I'm So Rich, So Giving, So Wonderful!!!!!

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, November 21, 2007.

Potlatch inhabits the area between kind, gracious actual communal responsibility and self promotion. For example, if you make a donation to the Salvation Army this holiday season, that’s charity. If you make a donation and take the deduction on the tax returns, that’s a business deal. If you make the donation, take the deduction and issue a press release announcing this transaction for your applause, that’s potlatch. Of course, we call it Philanthropy, but that’s a difficult sell for me.

Potlatch, you may recall, was once promoted as the American Thanksgiving before Europeans arrived, or rather, before the Pilgrims arrived, which was about a century and a quarter after Columbus. During those years, the population of the New World may have lost about 90% of its human inhabitants to pandemics. When in the 1620’s our beloved Pilgrims arrived, so bereft of game and food was New England that first November the Pilgrims were forced to cannibalize Indian burial huts and grain stores. They patted this all into shape saying it was divine providence that put it there solely for their behalf. Rugged guys, our ancestors, but the first Thanksgiving with Indians may have been one to gag Hannibal Lechter, who’d never eat spoiled human meat.

Potlatch took many forms throughout the North American tribes. Initially, it was presented by the blinkered eyes of early anthropologists and explorers as a good-hearted communal gathering, a feast where everyone shared and gave gifts to each other, sort of a blend of the two holidays that supposedly replaced it. What initially was presented as an expression of socialized compassion and civilized concern was revealed as rather a guilt inducing orgy of gift giving by the powerful warriors to the lesser to show who was the best hunter and provider and man in the tribe. The emphasis was not on the sick or weak who got the needed gift, but on the magnificent human being before them that – congealed with all the humility a good man can have – asked them to his abode to shower them with goodies. It was now their duty to return the favor, and everyone in the tribe would know who gave away the most.

That seems to be one attitude that Native Americans shared with their invaders: the rather depressing inclination to make charity and gift giving about the giver, and not the supposed recipient. This is especially disgusting if you profess to be a Christian, since there are several examples of Christ’s attitudes towards ostentation of any sort, his concern for the meek. He never notified Herod’s media when he raised the dead or kept weddings in booze and bread. The one totally impressive aspect of the Judeo Christian ethic is the one Christ, who wanted most to be a good Jew, focused upon: being righteous before God. Be righteous with no reward, no punishment, but simply because God approved. That’s still an impressive concept even to this atheist, and no more popular today than then.

The argument is that there would be no charitable giving at all if this rather hypocritical exchange couldn’t take place. I’m not convinced that it doesn’t sometimes hurt.

We make a big deal out of food drives for Thanksgiving, but the emphasis is on giving the needy a big holiday dinner, where the sponsoring agencies, like television stations, get to self promote under the guise of both news and charity, and people help prepare and serve the food and a lot of undeniable work goes into it. But after all the energy and expense for the one meal, what then? Wouldn’t it be better to up the quality of the average food line than blow it on one wasteful meal? What is the goal here? To raise people from economic stress or to tongue bathe middle class social climbers, dressed to the nines for media coverage?

It’s worse when you consider the toy drive for children on Christmas, which for decades have given kids cheap toys, probably from China, in order to …….well, what? Look good themselves under restricted circumstances so as not to feel guilty for more than a day or two a year.

I think of this during the holiday season because I spent an entire such season, from October to February, in jail fourteen years ago. Even there we had decorations and a big meal on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Couldn’t the turkey that went to the jail in some excess have been more deservingly given elsewhere? It was good, and I enjoyed cooking it in the kitchen, but………what the hey?

Even jailers want to be thanked, I suppose.

Potlatch or not, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving. Although, I'll be quietly judging you.