Friday, November 27, 2015

Meet the Pilgrims

As has become all too commonplace, there are conflicting narratives when it comes to Thanksgiving.  You have copious memes presenting the Pilgrims as the first refugees to arrive on American shores.   Then there is Rush Limbaugh recycling his Thanksgiving story about how the Pilgrims ditched their socialist ideals to become free-market capitalists.  There is even a movie this year, Saints and Strangers, depicting a much harsher version of the Thanksgiving story, which is not for the politically squeamish at heart.  I guess you can take your pick like one does at the holiday dinner table.  Or, you can just watch football.

It's pretty hard to have a serious dialogue, much less nuanced conservation about Thanksgiving, if no one is willing to agree on the particulars.  I remember spending the holiday one year with my cousins in North Carolina and we ended up getting into a nasty argument over how Indians abused the welfare system.  They saw the local Lumbee tribe as free-loaders and were tired of footing the bill.  I didn't know much about the Lumbees but figured this was just another one of those straw man arguments that conservatives like to use to launch into their attack on the welfare system in general, so I took the Lumbees' side.  Boy, did I get an earful!  My dear aunt suggested we all wash our mouths with soap to clean this nastiness from our palates before being served dinner.

Past and present have a tendency to become conflated in such ideological battles, as to one degree or another we have mythologized the original Pilgrims, making them into standard bearers for our ahistorical viewpoints.  No one is worse at this than Rush Limbaugh.  Ben Norton pointed out in his Salon article that the big man of the air waves got pretty much everything wrong, especially the transition from socialism to capitalism.  As Jack would say ...

The basic problem is that religion and nationalism come too heavily into play, with many conservatives seeing the nation founded on the religious ideals of the Plymouth colony.  It didn't matter that there were British colonies before them, and that they all had charters that required they engage in profitable activities.  Many Americans see them as the prototypes for our Christian nation, ignoring the Enlightenment of the next century that had a far greater impact on our Founding Fathers than did the Pilgrims.

The "refugee argument" has worn thin.  Far from escaping religious persecution, the Pilgrims and their fundamental religious brethren in the Massachusetts Bay area imposed their religion with an iron will on others, including the local natives who soon found themselves odd man out in the forceful new narrative that was being shaped before their eyes.  I suppose this is what Saints and Strangers aims at presenting, although I haven't seen the National Geographic special.  I'm a bit leary of NatGeo ever since Rupert Murdoch bought it lock, stock and barrel.  I'm more partial to retellings like this one from the Addams Family, which at least offers a dark sense of humor to the events which took place almost 400 years ago.

The British colonies, like the Spanish, French and Dutch colonies before them, all sought to impose their image of the world on America.  The traditional Thanksgiving story offers us a quaint notion of what might have been had we only stayed friends with the local tribes rather than seek every opportunity to marginalize them in the new societies that were established.  Of course, small pox made that job much easier than anticipated.

As Daniel Richter tells us in Facing East from Indian Country, the tribes were so thoroughly devasted by small pox that by the 17th century they had reformed into new collective units based on an amalgam of native and semi-Christian rituals, some even with their own written language.  These so-called civilized tribes, like the Cherokee, Choctaw and Seminole, were entirely new entities, and became quite antagonistic to the ever-growing European population.  This eventually led to disturbing events like the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the civilized tribes from the boundaries of the United States of America, which at the time stretched to the Mississippi River.  The Lumbees apparently were allowed to hang around, as they weren't perceived as posing a threat.

It is quite true that the religious dogmatism which pervaded the Massachusetts Bay and Virginia colonies lingers with us still, thanks to those who opposed the more liberal notions put forward by Jefferson, Madison and other enlightened souls that wanted to separate church and state.  Apparently, Jefferson was unable to hire Deist faculty members at UVA due to the religious bias in the Virginia state house.  Pantheistic thought was generally frowned upon at that time, as it is now.

We have long been a nation in denial, so why shouldn't we reinvent Thanksgiving if the notion serves our interests?  That cheerful feeling of bonhomie we were taught in elementary school no longer serves contemporary political purposes.  Rush should have added the part where the Pilgrims rejected "Obamacare," although I'm sure he added a facsimile.  Lest we get too lost in the political woods, here are The Peanuts to remind us what Thanksgiving is supposed to be about.


  1. I have Alan Taylor's "American Colonies: The Settling of North America" that I have been meaning to read. Have only dipped into it here and there. It was published as part of the Penguin History of the United States, the editor of which is Eric Foner, who can do no wrong in my book.

  2. I have Alan Taylor's "American Colonies: The Settling of North America" that I have been meaning to read. Have only dipped into it here and there. It was published as part of the Penguin History of the United States, the editor of which is Eric Foner, who can do no wrong in my book.

  3. I have that book too. Started it but never finished it. I wouldn't mind returning to it.