Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Have a Puritan Capitalist Revolution Day

The history of Thanksgiving, like every holiday I know of, is mythologized. The brown and orange construction paper image is of a 1621 Plymouth harvest festival during which very different people came together peacefully, feasted, and thanked God for having survived a rough year (h/t native Americans). Pilgrim-Indian love. The tradition has much older roots than the American Plymouth event. That Pilgrim-based version also has a much darker reality. You don't have to scratch very deeply to find that most holidays, most mythical events or creation myths in a country's history, are rooted in simmering or actual violence.

But I hadn't heard the version celebrating Thanksgiving as capitalism's victory over socialism.

From a NY Times Week in Review article, I have learned that Tea-Partiers (some? all? who knows?) apparently think Thanksgiving to be a triumph of capitalism over the Pilgrims' European socialism. The huggy day of warmth and thanks, celebrated with family and friends, is based on liberal mythology that suggests white people needed brown-red people to stay alive, then thanked them for it.
...[W]hy take a holiday from argument? In these fractious times, even the meaning of Thanksgiving is subject to political debate.

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...
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.
First, the NY Times writer is incorrect. There is no political debate. Socialism didn't exist until nearly 200 years after the Pilgrims. Generally-speaking, from regular Joes to history scholars, no one debates whether history moves backwards.

Oh, alright, let's be generous and assume that, by "socialism," is meant something as sweepingly general and ahistorical as "socialism-like mode of socio-politico-economic organization." Maybe somewhere on the internets someone claims that socialism runs as far back as ancient Greece where, of course, socialists were also the homosexual. Toss in a reference to Plato's Republic to make the claim sound authoritative (thanks for the reference, Glenn Beck!). The ideal city created in The Republic, however, is actually a strict, class society placed in contrast to the communism-like mode of socio-politico-economic organization Socrates outlines briefly in Book II as the truly just society, what young Glaucon refers to dismissively as a "city of pigs."

An assertion within a closed system of self-confirming assertions does not a debate make. History and historical accounts, including well-researched and rigorous historical scholarship, are value-laden and interpretative, an overlapping of the contemporary mind on the past. This is vital to the unfolding of history itself, not to mention the intellectual honesty and modesty of good historical scholarship, which as a modern discipline constantly grapples at least implicitly with questions of objectivity, memory, and selective forgetting (and, then, even "objectivity has a history").

Nonetheless,... oh screw it. I don't know why I'm spending time on this. Let me just bail on this post by using an analogous set of nonsensical assertions:

Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America's national bird. The blasphemy! This preposterously liberal Frenchman mocked our noble national bird, the bald eagle. Besides, how could we possibly eat our sacred national bird? Therefore, Benjamin Franklin was a cannibal.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

UPDATE: Steve Benen goes at it too, but then does not wonder why the hell he's bothering (h/t Cheryl).


MT said...

"Food saved our asses once and we were thankful; let's be thankful again"

That's the concept of the holiday as I happily celebrate it. Discuss and/or dispute the historical details over dinner if you like, but they need not be the point, and seemingly aren't for most people.

MT said...

Regarding the details, the Vikings didn't survive Vineland and I doubt Pilgrims would have survived either, had they not been able to learn a whole lot from a society already there. I doubt they could have done so except by making nice, and I am sure they felt grateful for the assistance, whether to their actual saviors, to happenstance, or to their imagined deity.

helmut said...

"Food saved our asses once and we were thankful; let's be thankful again"

Agreed. Plus, "I enjoy cooking and being in the company of loved ones (with the caveat that this does not imply every day of the year, but at least this one, for which I am thankful)."