You can measure cultural change via the straw men we use to complain about it. The Eighties and Nineties whaaaaat is the deeaaaal with airline food disappeared along with the food and evolved into everyone having some schtick about taking their shoes off in the security line or seeing their MacBook crushed by a reclining seat. Aiming for the fattest targets, the complaints always miss the right ones, veering hackily away from the real enemy. You can see the same thing at work with Thanksgiving.
You don’t even need to attend Thanksgiving to do it. The think piece economy evolves in much the same way, albeit with an affected ironic distance from the anima that drives normal human interest. Wrapped around pop culture like a lamprey, it lacks that creature’s silent dignity and postures as an independent being, in spite of where all the blood comes from. Thanksgiving, a wonderful secular food ritual, thus provides endless nourishment for supercilious whining, preying on new straw men as the circumstances change.
For much of the 2000s, you could enjoy a kind of generalized complaint about how much “Thanksgiving sucks,” which was hackneyed the moment it began. I went over this years ago, but this mostly took the form of assignment-padding pieces, penned 30 minutes before vacation time, saying “Why Having to Use a Rental Car and Go to a Suburb of 80,000 People to Eat 12 Pounds of Food With My Mom Is Basically a Trail of Tears.” Family, friends, food, free laundry. Spare us all.
The underlying tone was a great derisive snorting about the provincialism to which the writer was about to be subject. It conveyed the sense that the worst part of Thanksgiving was being forced to return to the thing that had been escaped and that could in no way define the writer, who was now a being from a brighter place. Going home was a retrograde process, some ignoble devolution that inevitably occasions departing the glittering New York-D.C. axis, which only spent 2002-2008 breaking the entire world.
But beating up hicks and yahoos and white trash — translation: poor people — eating starchy and inexpensive staple food is sort of a bad look in a think piece economy increasingly driven by identity politics and the latest Upworthy-styled headline about changing the conversation. That kind of punching down only problematizes the discourse when you’re humping the latest “[Celebrities/Behaviors/Tweets] Are Problematic” pitch. So the straw man has been refined from the more troublingly inclusive venue of suburbs, places with cars, ranch houses, lots of food, big TVs and football to the universal Racist Uncle.
Leaving aside how problematically ageist and sexist it is that the conversation does not address racist aunts or even racist nieces and nephews, the word racist does all the work for the concept. One you add the racist part, other circumstances don’t matter, so we can plow headlong through some performative thrashing of claims and counterclaims that the writers Googled before Uber arrived to take them to LaGuardia, whereupon they would be herded into a flying prison tube bound for… I dunno, Indianapolis.
That these pieces are really little more than “Here Is the Last Week in Trump/Carson/Cruz/Whatever News Repackaged as Quips for Your Trip Home” isn’t exactly subtle, but they also rely on a lot of magical thinking and a fantastical vision of family life that verges on the mortally depressing. For instance:
First, there’s the idea that the reader willing to risk chilling an entire family meal by picking a fight with someone who presumably had enough authority or group approval to need to be fought with would somehow be willing to pick that fight armed with no more than a five-point bulleted list. This is the insufferable 2015 version of the nerd who gets sand kicked in his face by the big bully, and these truly exhaustive “Ben Carson Can’t Figure Out If Someone’s a Muslim by the Shape of Their Face and Here’s Why” explainers are the Charles Atlas bodybuilding kits.