Thanksgiving, the Riemann Series Theorem, and Postmodernism

I think I can safely subtitle this entire post, “Oh, shit, she’s back on her bullshit again.”

So, with that firmly established. let’s start with a very basic, very important ground state: Thanksgiving is a really dubious holiday. Pretty much everything we’ve heard about its origins has been sanitized for White audiences. Very little of the detailed history of the early Colonial settlements ever got taught in school. This piece by Robert Jensen lays out the details pretty well, but the summary version is that a lot of the early colonists, including many of our illustrious Founding Fathers, treated the people who were already living here as simpletons at best, animals or a disease at worst. America has never been free of the sickness of white supremacy; it’s comorbid with the concept of Manifest Destiny. If some group of people is Chosen, anyone who isn’t part of that tribe really isn’t going to matter all that much to their meta-narrative. Their stories don’t get shared. Their viewpoints don’t get considered. Ultimately, they as a people don’t get included in the picture, because they aren’t part of the chosen tribe. And so, they get shuffled out of the picture, gracefully if possible, violently if necessary. America’s history is steeped in violence, born out of its origin story as a land provided by a particular god to a particular group of people at the expense of anyone else with whom those people came into contact.

As a culture, Americans have yet to really grapple with that fact in any great depth. Here, I can only point to voices more powerful than mine and say “go listen to them.” Standing Rock. Look at the fact that no politician anywhere can say the word “reparations.” The Flint water crisis is still ongoing. The very fact that enough people voted for Cuffy Meigs to get him elected president points to a really strong wellspring of anti-intellectualism and reactionary thought that will take more than goodfact to address.

Oh, sure, I hear you say now that that’s not the “modern Thanksgiving” that we all celebrate. You’re absolutely right. The modern Thanksgiving has its origin in the letter-writing campaign of a newspaper editor named Sarah Hale. In addition to writing five sitting Presidents over forty years to try to get Thanksgiving established as a national holiday, she also believed women should spend more time influencing men’s votes and less time worrying about whether to vote themselves. She also devoted a lot of print space helping create the cult of domesticity in which women have been trapped since the Industrial Revolution.

Now, it’s important to me that I note she did a lot of good in the world: she helped Vassar College become the powerhouse of women’s education that it is today. She was a staunch abolitionist and pro-Union advocate. She wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for gears’ sake. I’m not sitting here flinging ad hominems just to trash her credibility or historical role. Rather, I’m trying to point out that the matron of the modern-day idea of Thanksgiving had her own viewpoint, her own context, and she operated from within it same as we all do. In her worldview, what America needed to cure its ills was a unifying holiday that put the focus on home, family, hearth, and the virtues that she believed were tied to such things. The first four presidents to which she wrote ignored her. The fifth was Abraham Lincoln, and he had just overseen a civil war, a violent shattering of the nation’s weltanshauung. The idea of a national holiday giving everyone a common set of themes and ideals probably seemed like one of those so-crazy-it-might-work ideas. Thanksgiving was very likely one of the many chunks of gelatin that Lincoln tried nailing to the wall to see what stuck.

The deeper issue is that the last thing anybody living during the Reconstruction needed was a way to set aside the enduring violence of slavery with a veneer of gentility that further papered over the violent and colonialist history of the Pilgrims. I suppose it’s the perfect damned cover story, in a grand guignol sort of way. In seeking to lessen the sting of forcing people to admit that slavery was morally wrong and we should have never permitted it in the first place, the most enduringly popular president of the United States helped promulgate an entirely different myth of how the Pilgrims and the native tribes all got along and helped one another. I wish I had learned about Lysander Spooner in school. He was an early advocate for the North letting the South secede in entirety, then invading on a moral crusade to liberate the slaves. Sure, everyone remembers the Emancipation Proclamation, but few people remember that it freed exactly zero slaves; it merely told slaves that, if they could escape the South on their own, they’d be free if they could get to Union soil. It took the Thirteenth Amendment to actually abolish slavery. Prior to that, slavery was part of the U.S. Constitution. Some evidence points to the first slave-owner in Massachusetts showing up only three years after the first Thanksgiving.

Of course, the ultra-modern understanding of Thanksgiving has absolutely nothing to do with colonialism or Lincoln, and everything to do with late-stage capitalism. The day after Thanksgiving is Black Friday, the official start of the Christmas shopping season no matter how hard the retailers try to push it back before Halloween. The madness has gotten to the point that stores are starting to open at 00h01, demanding that employees work midnight shifts to slake the retail thirst of consumer hordes. Projects like Buy Nothing Day exist to raise awareness, but Moloch demands sacrifices.

So if Thanksgiving is this terrible, horrible idea, why celebrate it? Why do anything to touch it at all? Why should we endorse it with our time, our energy, or our attention? First, as a federal holiday in America, I endorse taking every vacation day to which everyone is entitled. Second…

… okay, bear with me. I told you I was back on my bullshit.

You like math? I like math. I really like math, like… like-like. You probably don’t like-like math like I like-like math. That’s okay. Go watch this. It’s fifteen minutes. It’s probably confusing as all hell. That’s okay too. Here’s the relevant takeaway:

  1. There’s this statement floating around the internet that the sum of all natural numbers is negative one-twelfth.
  2. This statement is, on its face, absurd. The sum of any number of positive numbers, much less an infinite number of positive numbers, can’t be negative. The sum of any number of whole numbers, much less an infinite series of whole numbers, can’t be a fraction.
  3. However, people said much the same thing about negative numbers, fractions, the square root of two, imaginary numbers, quaternions, and hyperbolic geometry.
  4. A deeper analysis of the sum of the infinite series of natural numbers reveals that what’s going on is that we’re really dealing with a natural root of a Riemann-Zeta function, which we’ve projected into a space into which it normally doesn’t go because math is really just the study of math and you can do what you want with your axioms as long as you don’t contradict yourself.
  5. Negative one-twelfth happens to be where some particular function crosses the zero on the Y-axis in this projection, and that function corresponds to the sum of all natural numbers according to how Riemann-Zeta functions work.

So, boiling all that down, what we get is this: the sum of all natural numbers isn’t negative one-twelfth any more than five cats minus six cats is “negative one cat.” There’s no such thing as a negative cat. Dogs don’t count. Neither do hyenas. However, in the abstract world of math-as-symbols, this transformation is both possible and valid, and the interchange of equivalent symbols allows for the reduction of this unwieldy expression into a manageable value, albeit an unexpected one.

So, I shall now do as Jack Burton demands, and get to the goddamn point.

Growing up, I never gave two shits about Thanksgiving. Both of my parents were estranged from their families, and I wasn’t particularly close to my dad. Thanksgiving mostly ended up being about setting a beautiful place setting and having a couple of days out of school. I grew up hearing the standard American lies, but I never really thought about the deeper context as a child. It wouldn’t be until I was in my late teens that I met my friend Dawn and I learned about the Orphans’ Feast. Dawn had a lot of friends who grew up in broken homes, or homeless, or poor, but Dawn grew up with a big family Thanksgiving. So, every year, she threw a party with standing instructions to everyone she knew: if you don’t have anywhere else to be for the holiday, come here and I will feed you.

This gesture of charity so touched me that I adopted it when I moved out of Texas, despite not having fully escaped the O (CW: Memetic Hazard). Over the last sixteen years, it’s grown and evolved, becoming more and more of a central part of my personal praxis. During a period of aggressive amateur conlanging, the word “abundance” became Bandaza, and the name stuck. As Lapinia evolved in my mind, Bandaza became my fictional homeland’s primary holiday, founded on a mythopoe(t?)ic Last Feast that produced enough leftovers to sustain a starving warren during a particularly harsh winter. I’ll be writing that myth soon enough, because it’s such a foundational part of my own personal mythology.

Tomorrow, I’m baking three turkeys, three kilos of sweet potatoes, five kilos of cornbread stuffing, two sauces, some creamed corn, and probably some kind of dinner roll. I sent the initial reminder that Bandaza 16 to fifty-five people, and at least a dozen got forwarded the message soon after. I’m collecting donations this year for Northwest Harvest, Washington’s statewide hunger relief agency; last year we raised money for Trans Relief and the water protectors I mentioned earlier. I’ve bought Safeway donation bags. My doors are as open as I can safely make them. If you need a place to be, you can be here. Lately, we’ve all been discovering just how little we can count on our institutions to look after us, and so we must look after each other. Now, more than ever, is the time to practice what radical acts of kindness in the world we can. There is plenty for all.

In everything I said above, there’s one nugget of value that I think we can’t afford to lose. Whatever else we feel about America, the Pilgrims, Lincoln, colonialism, white supremacy, or capitalism, please remember this one thing: the modern-day understanding of Thanksgiving started with one person’s devotion to create a holiday devoted to home and family as moral values. These are good values, and they’re worth preserving. We need to dismantle Thanksgiving and its myths. We probably need to dismantle America as an institution. While we’re doing that, though, we need to make sure we don’t stop celebrating togetherness, charity, and family.