Monday, November 22, 2010

Teabaggers See Thanksgiving as Socialism

There's a lot to not like about our American holiday of Thanksgiving. It can easily be seen as a celebration of a milestone of European colonialism, when settlers from the other side of the wide ocean took advantage of the generosity of the tribes who lived on the American continent, preparatory to wiping them out. But as the tides of history flow, as migrations result in wars and decimation of cultures, the legendary first Thanksgiving dinner was at least a moment when the colonists stopped and gave thanks to their God for the beautiful land they had come to inhabit. They did not imagine the bloodshed and misery that would be swept into footnotes of the history books as white Europeans invaded and occupied without respect or recompense for the vanquished inhabitants of the continent. The image of Thanksgiving is one of the American Indian and the white European dining together, giving thanks, in a new land that promised to offer cooperation and prosperity for the two societies.

Lots of people object to celebration of Thanksgiving Day, just as some object to Columbus Day, and there are plenty of good reasons for it. But this? From the New York Times:
Forget what you learned about the first Thanksgiving being a celebration of a bountiful harvest, or an expression of gratitude to the Indians who helped the Pilgrims through those harsh first months in an unfamiliar land. In the Tea Party view of the holiday, the first settlers were actually early socialists. They realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.

Historians quibble with this interpretation. But the story, related by libertarians and conservatives for years, has taken on new life over the last year among Tea Party audiences, who revere early American history, and hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States. The Pilgrims Were ... Socialists?

Skipping down, we get to the part that the teabaggers don't like.
In one common telling, the pilgrims who came to Plymouth established a communal system, where all had to pool whatever they hunted or grew on their lands. Because they could not reap the fruits of their labors, no one had any incentive to work, and the system failed — confusion, thievery and famine ensued.

Finally, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, abolished this system and gave each household a parcel of land. With private property to call their own, the Pilgrims were suddenly very industrious and found themselves with more corn than they knew what to do with. So they invited the Indians over to celebrate. (In some other versions, the first Thanksgiving is not a feast but a brief respite from famine. But the moral is always the same: socialism doesn’t work.) The same commune-to-capitalism, famine-to-feast story is told of Jamestown, the first English settlement, in 1607. Dick Armey, the former House majority leader and Texas congressman who has become a Tea Party promoter, related it as a cautionary tale in a speech to the National Press Club earlier this year.

Uh, let me get this -- the government gave people land, and then they were industrious? How does that fit into the Tea Party narrative?

Here's the actual story:
Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the “common course.” But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.

“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” said Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum devoted to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive.

The arrangement did not produce famine. If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving. “The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Mr. Pickering said. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”

Like, yeah, there's not enough food, let's have a big feast. No, the historians are saying that the first Thanksgiving was a celebration of their success as a community.
Bradford did get rid of the common course — but it was in 1623, after the first Thanksgiving, and not because the system wasn’t working. The Pilgrims just didn’t like it. In the accounts of colonists, Mr. Pickering said, “there was griping and groaning.”

“Bachelors didn’t want to feed the wives of married men, and women don’t want to do the laundry of the bachelors,” he said.

The real reason agriculture became more profitable over the years, Mr. Pickering said, is that the Pilgrims were getting better at farming crops like corn that had been unknown to them in England.

As for Jamestown, there was famine. But historians dispute the characterization of the colony as a collectivist society. “To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate,” said Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a historian at New York University and the author of “The Jamestown Project.” “It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?”

It had never occurred to me to complain about Thanksgiving being a way of promoting socialism. But then, I do not suffer from the delusion that every individual is a self-contained autonomous entity, uniquely responsible for himself or herself and unconcerned with the outcomes of his or her peers. It seems obvious to me that people strike a balance between autonomy and interdependence, and it is naive to deny that we need one another in order to survive, we need one another in order to function as human beings.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It doesn't matter to me who you thank, but it is not a bad thing to take one day out of the year to realize what an amazing experiment in self-governance the USA has been, what a great piece of real estate we are camped on, what good people we are surrounded by. We are lucky to live where we do, in these times, and our prayers of thanks should include a promise to make it even better.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim, no comments on the DREAM Act ?

Given that there is already preference paid to minorities, and that to get into U of MD as a white highschool student you need a 4.0, I would have thought you would have had lots of comments on this one...

Or are you not in favor of it ?

Those struggling to pay their kids college education certainly have something to say about our state tax dollars being used to fund instate tuition for minorities and illegals, when the standards are so high for in-state US tax paying citizens to get in...

comments ? In favor of the DREAM act, or given that you have college age kids not so sure about that one ?

Very curious on your opinion.

I am EXTREMELY opposed.

I don't see how you justify it to all the US Citizens struggling to put their kids through college....

November 23, 2010 10:00 PM  

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