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the Complete Review
the complete review - anthropology


The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon,
the Death of Teddy's Bear,
and the Sovereign Exception
of Guantánamo

Magnus Fiskesjö

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo

Title: The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon [...]
Author: Magnus Fiskesjö
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2003
Length: 71 pages
Availability: The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon [...] - US
The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon [...] - UK
The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon [...] - Canada
The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon [...] - India
  • Versions of parts this essay were previously published in Swedish (in Svenska Dagbladet) and Turkish.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting thesis, curious facts

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo author Magnus Fiskesjö looks at that very peculiar American practise -- the annual official pardoning of a turkey by the head of state -- and reads quite a bit more into it. For Fiskesjö this ritual is a richly symbolic one, but it is not benevolence that is being displayed, but rather sovereign power -- complete and essentially arbitrary -- that is being reaffirmed.
       The annual pardoning of a turkey has been a tradition in the US for over half a century now, and it is taken very seriously; the official White House site even has a page devoted to it. Much of Fiskesjö's short book is devoted to describing the history and ceremony -- and this is half the (disturbing) fun of the book. From how the turkey is chosen, to where in DC it resides, and where it winds up -- plus the fact that there are actually two birds that are pardoned, a back-up kept out of sight, just in case something goes wrong with the star of the show -- it's a bizarre tale. The pardoning is also not quite as successful as one might hope: it's not quite happily ever after for these birds. It turns out that the turkeys:

are usually killed within a year and stand-in turkeys are supplied. This goes on year after year. The chosen birds are killed because they have been engineered and packed with hormones to the point that they are unfit for any other purpose than their own slaughter and consumption. They are fast-forward turkeys.
       (Joint disease -- "their frail joints simply cannot bear the weight of their artificially enhanced bodies" -- makes it necessary to put them out of their misery.)
       Anthropologist Fiskesjö considers this ceremony and its history, and then moves on to other pardons: Teddy Roosevelt's famous refusal to shoot a bear (leading to the teddy-bear craze), and then the power (by state governors, as well as the president) to pardon criminals (especially those on death row). Again, history often obscures ugly facts: for example, Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear, but did have it killed:
the bear was really spared not its death -- only its death at the hands of the president.
       What Fiskesjö sees here is a very American assertion of sovereign power, with its most recent -- and most perverse and radical -- display being the holding of prisoners literally beyond the law, in places such as Guantánamo. (The legal situation has changed slightly since this book was published; nevertheless, the basic idea of complete sovereign discretion -- the American president and no one else decides how to define, treat, and ultimately dispose of these captives -- remains largely (and in some extra-territorial locales, entirely) intact.)
       Fiskesjö points out the obvious problem with a right to pardon in the hands of a ruler, that in a just system this would:
constitute something of an affront to the law-abiding: an unfair usurpation of the right to punish transgressions against the law.
       To give this immense power to an individual who can arbitrarily employ it is to reinforce a political system that does not strive towards true equality. It gives the state and its representative(s) an added authority that is both unnecessary and unfair. It is the same authority that is then used to justify the truly outrageous, as has happened in Guantánamo (and also previously, as Fiskesjö notes, in concentration camps and the like) where humans are stripped of their most fundamental rights (despite the existence of international agreements such as the Geneva Convention, which exist specifically to prevent the possibility of this ever happening again.)
       As Fiskesjö points out:
the phenomenon of "Guantánamo" by today is already infecting and poisoning the entire world. The prisoners, neither prisoners-of-war nor criminals, inhabit a zone opened up outside any law. Their status evokes the camp in that it exemplifies a state of exception, a tear in the fabric of the rule of law, a rift through which we can already see the sharp shadow of imperial sovereignty.
       (The jr. Bush administration -- and the voters that support it -- seem entirely blind to the precedential dangers these actions pose; while some may agree with this treatment of these particular individuals at Guantánamo and elsewhere (blinded by the emotion of recent events, misled by the administration's claims (recall that many of these individuals have simply been released; if they were actually guilty of anything it would be shocking that they simply be let go), and moved by simple panic that prevents them from demanding more sensible and productive (and morally and legally justifiable) courses of action), what the jr. Bush administration has done is set a precedent for any future American leader, who may be even less well-equipped to make the right decisions. It may be hard to conceive of anyone trampling on human rights and the rule of law more carelessly than the jr. Bush; unfortunately, the true possibilities are endless. Especially in a country which so emphatically reaffirms sovereign power over the will of the people ..... The jr. Bush administration has only begun the descent into the abyss, and far, far worse could follow.)
       Fiskesjö's argument, snowballing from the trivial-humorous to the geo-political, may seem something of a stretch, but it's worth following. It's yet another perspective on what has gone -- perhaps inevitably ? -- oh so wrong in the United States after the events of September 2001. If nothing else, this reading of these myths and ceremonies (Teddy Roosevelt and the bear, the thanksgiving turkey) and the connexions Fiskesjö makes is thought-provoking. Given the importance of the questions ultimately at issue, that's already a lot.

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The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo: Thanksgiving and turkeys: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Magnus Fiskesjö is an anthropologist and sinologist, and director of the Östasiatiska museet in Stockholm.

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© 2004-2014 the complete review

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