Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, November 24, 2007

No Thanks to Thanksgiving

by Robert Jensen

AlterNet (November 23 2005)


One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits - which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin - the genocide of indigenous people - is of special importance today. It's now routine - even among conservative commentators - to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of US myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians' land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape".

Thomas Jefferson - president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" - was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, "[W]e shall destroy all of them".

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway".

Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth".

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who "settled" the country - and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable - such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States - suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class - one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, US elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures - such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq - as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation" and "undermine young people's faith in our country".

Yes, of course - that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day's mythology on our minds.

_____

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of, most recently, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005).

Copyright (c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

http://www.alternet.org/story/28584/


Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/index.html

1 Comments:

  • IN 2007: THANKSGIVING IS A TIME OF MOURNING IN SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

    When Teachers Forget the True Meaning of Thanksgiving, Our Children Suffer and Our Nation is Imperiled


    This year, Seattle public school teachers were reminded by their administrative authorities that Thanksgiving is "a time of mourning" and "a bitter reminder of five-hundred years of betrayal returned for friendship." Seattle school teachers were directed to learn even more horrible "truths" about Thanksgiving: that no one knows when the first Thanksgiving occurred, that the people who came across the ocean on the Mayflower were not really Pilgrims, that the colonists who came to the new land were not really seeking freedom of religion.

    In her November 2007 letter to all Seattle Public Schools staff, Caprice D. Hollins, Director of Seattle Schools Department of Equity and Race, wrote: "With so many holidays approaching we want to again remind you that Thanksgiving can be a particularly difficult time for many of our Native students. This website (http://www.oyate.org/resources/shortthanks.html) offers suggestions on ways to be sensitive of diverse experiences and perspectives and still make the holiday meaningful for all students. Here you will discover ways to help you and your students think critically, and find resources where you can learn about Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective. Eleven myths are identified about Thanksgiving, take a look at Myth #11 and begin your own deconstruction. Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time. Fact: For many Indian people, Thanksgiving is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship."

    Does that make you choke on your turkey? It should. When teachers forget the true meaning of Thanksgiving, our children suffer and our nation is imperiled.

    Here is the truth: There is a generally accepted "First Thanksgiving" and its meaning is clear.

    In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is now known as the first Thanksgiving. The most detailed description of the "First Thanksgiving" was written by Edward Winslow in "A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth," in 1621: "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakersof our plenty."

    The meaning of Thanksgiving was clear to the colonists: a time to thank God.

    The meaning of Thanksgiving has always been clear to all Americans: President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln made sure of that.

    In his October 3, 1789, "Proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving," President George Washington wrote: "Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be."

    In his March 2, 1863, "Proclamation for a National Day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer," President Abraham Lincoln wrote: "We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand that preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness. Now, therefore...I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer."

    So, why do the administrators of the Seattle Public Schools not know the true meaning of Thanksgiving? Why don't they teach the truth? Why do they insist on a curriculum designed to instill guilt and shame?

    I don't know. But, I decided to do something about it.

    My name is Michael Class. I live in the Seattle area with my wife and two children. I am a retired "dot-com" executive who just couldn't sit by and let the mis-education of America's youth go unchallenged anymore. I'm tired of seeing America's next generation being fed a curriculum of politically-correct misinformation, guilt, and shame.

    I was appalled at how some teachers presented American history to my children. My son and daughter learned that Thomas Jefferson had slaves - before they learned that he wrote the document articulating our rights and duties as free people. European settlers killed Native Americans with blankets infected with smallpox, they found out. That allegation upstaged the stories of courage, perseverance, and curiosity that defined the pioneers. While folding paper cranes in the classroom, my children were told that a hundred thousand people died when the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan - but they were not made to understand the moral context of World War II in which the atomic bomb story fit. My children were instructed to equate illegal aliens with legal immigrants, devaluing the story of their own ancestors who came to America through Ellis Island. And, classroom discussions always seemed to cast businessmen as villains, instead of as people to be emulated.

    I wrote, photographed, and published an American history book designed to set the record straight, to teach the real lessons of American history, and to prepare our children for the future. My book is called Anthony and the Magic Picture Frame.

    In the book, my real-life son, twelve-year-old Anthony, time-travels into the great events of the 20th Century. Advanced digital photography places Anthony in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis with Charles Lindbergh, on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, in the laboratories of Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk, and on Normandy beach on D-Day. Anthony "meets" and "talks with" Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, FDR, Lou Gehrig, Charles Lindbergh, Audie Murphy, and many others. But historical accuracy rules every page of Anthony's adventure in time: Anthony’s conversations with America’s heroes are based on things they really said. My Web site, www.MagicPictureFrame.com, displays some of the book's amazing photographs.

    But the book goes beyond dazzling photography and solid historical facts: The book presents the moral lessons of American history. Anthony learns valuable lessons from what he sees in the past. Anthony compares the people and events of the past with the people and events of his own time. Anthony discusses the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, war and peace, what it means to be an American, honor and discipline, success and achievement, courage and destiny, marriage and family, God and purpose.

    The chapter about Lindbergh’s flight is really about choosing one’s destiny. The story of Lou Gehrig is really about living a virtuous life. The chapter about Thomas Edison is really about the benefits of business leadership and hard work. The story of Apollo 11 is about wonder, taking risks, and courage. The story of Dr. Jonas Salk is really about dedicating one’s life to a higher purpose. When Anthony meets his immigrant great-grandfather at Ellis Island, it’s really a story about what it means to be an American. Anthony’s observation of D-Day and the liberation of the death camps during the Holocaust is a testament to the reality of evil and the need to fight it.

    The book is written for kids in Grade 6 to Grade 12, and for parents and teachers who want to remember the truth.

    We can't afford to raise a generation of Americans who do not value their country, their heritage, and their place in the world. As Abraham Lincoln said: America is the "last best hope of earth."

    Please join me! Take some time now to reflect on the past, and to remember our history and our heroes. Bring forth in your mind the real lessons of our history - and share them with your children. Help America's next generation to hear the voices of the great men and women of the past calling them to greatness.

    It's time to remember the truth and share it with our children.

    (You can read more about why I wrote the book here: www.magicpictureframe.blogspot.com.)


    Michael S. Class
    Author / Photographer / Publisher

    E-Mail: class@MagicPictureFrame.com

    -----------------------

    Anthony and the Magic Picture Frame: The History Book with a Message for Today's Young Americans

    Read the book. Remember the truth. Share it with your children.

    Web Site: www.MagicPictureFrame.com

    By Blogger Michael S. Class, at 11:47 AM, November 25, 2007  

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