President Obama pardoned the Thanksgiving turkeys yesterday. For our foreign readers, this is a White House tradition in which the American President finds two turkeys and declares that they will not be eaten, sending them off to live a life of ease in a petting zoo or some national monument. This year’s birds were named “Liberty” and “Peace,” so needless to say, he couldn’t have killed either one.
This tradition is dumb. First off, the turkeys can’t be pardoned because they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Maybe they could be rescued or saved, but that’s not the same thing. More importantly, there are no consequences of the pardon. Obama (and most of America) are still going to eat other birds, so there isn’t even the symbolic value of swearing off the slaughter of millions of living creatures.
Conservative philosophers from Edmund Burke to Tevye the dairy farmer have argued that traditions are goods in themselves and that there is virtue in doing certain things simply because they have been done in the past. There are moments when I’m sympathetic to this argument, but what happens when the ritual is empty and just plain silly? Does the virtue of it being a tradition outweigh its senselessness?
I love Thanksgiving. I love the meal (including the turkey). I love having huge crowds at my house and cooking obscene amounts of food for people I care about. There are many arguments against the holiday worth discussing, including those that examine the slaughter of Native Americans and the immorality of a gluttonous holiday that exists in the shadow of world poverty and starvation. But I’m not discussing those now. Instead, I’m looking specifically at the ridiculous and self-contradictory nature of the turkey pardon and asking, does the fact that it’s a tradition mean it’s worth doing? Arguing yes would be, I think, a hard case to defend.