FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2022
But did the essay make sense? In a more perfect world, we Americans would know the full, or at least the fuller, history of the so-called Americas—of North America and South America, before Columbus and after.
For those in search of such wider knowledge we'll recommend the widely praised 2005 book by Charles Mann:
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
For the record, Mann's book isn't limited to the world that existed before Columbus. Early on, he relates the history the English people who arrived on Cape Cod in 1620, and of the Native Americans with whom they interacted.
(First sentence, Chapter 2: "On March 22, 1621, an official Native American delegation walked through what is now southern New England to negotiate with a group of foreigners who had taken over a recently deserted Indian settlement.")
Regarding the history of that particular interaction, we'd also recommend the highly erudite 2019 book by Professor David Silverman:
This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving
Having said that, we'd also say this. It seems to us that Silverman's book carries a bit of a point of view—a point of view which may help explain why our floundering blue political tribe can't even manage to hold onto the House in this, the age of Donald J. Trump.
(According to the Cook Report: With 107.2 million votes counted, Republican candidates outpolled their Democratic opponents this year, by three percentage points.)
Given our acknowledged moral and intellectual brilliance, why can't we blues do better than that? It seems to us that a tiny hint emerges from Professor Silverman's highly erudite book—more generally, from the ways our tribe is inclined to present such basic parts of our own nation's human history.
As we've repeatedly noted, Silverman's book is full of erudition. It's also built around a slightly sour point of view, a point of view our tribe routinely adopts as we struggle to convince the Others of our moral greatness.
On Thanksgiving Day 2019, the New York Times published an essay by Silverman—an essay built out of his vastly informative book. Yesterday, we edited the start of that essay, revealing the well-known, upbeat story which lies at the heart of this tale.
We didn't add a single world to what Silverman wrote in his essay. Below, you see the actual way the essay began, hard-copy headline included:
The Vicious Myth of Thanksgiving
Generations of Americans have told themselves a patriotic story of the supposed first Thanksgiving that misrepresents colonization as consensual and bloodless.
The story goes like this: English Pilgrims cram aboard the Mayflower and brave the stormy Atlantic to seek religious freedom in America. They disembark at Plymouth Rock and enter the howling wilderness equipped with their proto-Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, and the confidence that they are God’s chosen people. Yet sickness and starvation halve their population during the first winter and challenges their faith.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Indians (rarely identified by tribe), with whom the English desperately wish to trade for food, keep a wary distance. Just when Plymouth seems destined to become another lost colony, miraculously, the Natives make contact through the interpreters Samoset and Squanto (the story sidesteps how these figures learned English, nor does it explain why the Indians suddenly became so friendly). The sachem (or chief), Ousamequin (whom the English know, from his title, as “Massasoit”), even agrees to a treaty of alliance with Plymouth.
Over the spring and summer, the Indians feed the Pilgrims and teach them how to plant corn; the colony begins to thrive. In the fall, the two parties seal their friendship with the first Thanksgiving. The subsequent 50-year peace allows colonial New England and, by extension, the United States to become a citadel of freedom, democracy, Christianity and plenty.
As for what happens to the Indians next, this story has nothing to say. The Indians’ legacy is to present America as a gift to white people—or in other words, to concede to colonialism...
Did Silverman compose that headline? We'll assume he didn't.
Nor does he say, in the text of his essay, that this country's long-standing Thanksgiving myth is "vicious." Whoever composed that very blue headline was working from the following passage in Silverman's essay:
"The Wampanoags, who are the Indians in this tale, have long contended that the Thanksgiving myth sugarcoats the viciousness of colonial history for Native people. It does."
In his own words, Silverman doesn't say that the Thanksgiving myth itself is vicious. And of course, it plainly isn't, until it falls into the hands of an egghead journalist from our flailing blue tribe.
Silverman doesn't say that the Thanksgiving myth is vicious. Instead, he says that this nation's subsequent "colonial history" turned out to be "vicious for Native people."
We'd prefer the word "brutal" ourselves. But it's hard to argue that Silverman's assessment isn't tragically accurate.
(He also seems to say that those Thanksgiving pageants taught the kids that the Indians were "conceding to colonialism." That strikes us as a peculiar, perhaps ridiculous claim—a claim which comes from a highly pointed point of view.)
In the centuries after that famous feast, the history of Native America became unmistakably brutal. For those of us alive today, the question is what we should do about that. We'll make a few suggestions:
One thing we probably shouldn't do is compose exciting headlines which 1) misstate what an author has said, and 2) will surely tend to offend many readers on the morning of a national holiday which many people love.
The inclination to adopt such thrilling behaviors lies deep in our soul at newspapers like the New York Times. That said, it's a good way to drive the kind of tribal division which leaves the GOP in control of the House in spite of our own tribe's manifest goodness and brilliance.
In fairness to the headline writer, a sardonic tone may perhaps be found in the opening paragraphs of Silverman's actual essay.
He starts by possibly seeming to refer to "Americans" as "them." He continues along in sardonic fashion, complaining that the children at our grade school pageants haven't even been told the name of the tribe which helped the Pilgrims survive.
Indeed, in the "grade school pageants" to which Silverman later refers, children aren't even told how the interpreters Samoset and Squanto learned to speak English! Nor have second graders ever been told "why the Indians suddenly became so friendly."
Also, the second graders were never told "what happen[ed] to the Indians next." More specifically, they were never told about what happened after "the 50-year peace" which followed that famous 1621 feast.
Later in his essay, Silverman fills us in about that history, exactly as an historian should. Inevitably, though, he seems to complain about the myth as he does:
SILVERMAN: The Thanksgiving myth also sanitizes the power politics of the Pilgrim-Wampanoag alliance. For years afterward, Ousmequin threatened rivals in and outside the Wampanoag tribe with violence from his English allies. Such intimidation played a far more important role in the Wampanoags’ alliance with Plymouth than the first Thanksgiving.
And the myth distorts history by highlighting the alliance while ignoring its deterioration. After Ousamequin’s death in 1660, the English and the Wampanoags constantly teetered on the edge of war because of the colonists’ aggressive, underhanded expansion. These tensions culminated in King Philip’s War of 1675-76, in which the English killed thousands of Native people—including Ousamequin’s son, Pumetacom—and enslaved thousands more. Plymouth and Massachusetts celebrated their bloody victory with a day of thanksgiving.
Imagine! When Americans staged those public school pageants, they didn't include the history of King Philip's War, which started fifty years later. The killing of Pumetacom wasn't even part of the deal!
What are schoolkids taught today about the history of such wars, which extended across the continent as this nation expanded? What are kids taught about the brutal history which followed that "First Thanksgiving?" About the effects of that brutal history in the present day?
What are second graders taught about that? How about kids in high school? We don't know the answer to those questions, and there's no sign that Silverman has researched those questions either.
What he almost seems to be doing is complaining that children attending public school pageants weren't exposed to a graduate-level history curriculum when they were in third grade. In all candor, this complaint doesn't make a whole lot of sense—except to the extent that the complaining party is approaching this matter from a certain point of view.
We'll compliment Silverman, as at least one commenter did, for something he chose to include in his short capsule history. We refer to the capsule history in which the Wampanoags of that era weren't exclusively "kinder and gentler," as they may have seemed to be in grade school pageants of yore.
In Silverman's essay, Ousamequin is said to have engaged in intimidations and threats of violence against all manner of rivals, Native as well as British, in the years which followed that first Thanksgiving. That said, are we supposed to think that second graders should have been told that too?
Our view? Silverman wrote an angry essay which didn't exactly make sense.
For the record, let's be fair! If you think that anger provides the best route to future progress, there's plenty to be angry about in the brutal American history which lies at the heart of his brief
That said, it doesn't exactly make sense to aim your anger about Native American history at a story that's been told at grade school pageants—a story in which the Native Americans tend to function as the heroes of the piece.
Nor does it necessarily make a lot of sense to drop your bomb on Thanksgiving morning, under a tough-talking headline which misrepresents what your essay actually said. (We'll assume that headline came from some incompetent editor at the Times, not from the essay's author.)
Silverman's essay generated twenty-four comments. It seems to us that they're often very instructive. The shape of his larger point of view is on fuller display in his highly erudite book, concerning which our own general view would be this:
Silverman seems to be a highly erudite historian. Also, we think he's inclined toward an uninsightful political point of view, one which tends to damage progressive (and American) interests.
Did he start by suggesting that "Americans" are secretly "them?" In the actual text of the essay, it's pretty much as you like it. In Silverman's book, he seems to put more flesh on the bones of that sadly familiar point of view.
Our blue tribe often broadcasts this view—and despite our self-acknowledged brilliance, we rarely seem to notice the fact that we're doing some such thing, or that we may be harming our interests in the process.
In Silverman's book, he seems to give voice to this framework. For example, why should a kid named "Silverman" have had to listen to "My Country Tis of Thee" during those grade school pageants?
In his book, Silverman directly asks that question. He quickly shows that he knows the theoretical answer, but it's an answer he seems to reject.
Are we the people one big people, or are we instead a collection of different demographic groups? Our deeply self-impressed blue tribe has become increasingly committed to difference rather than sameness.
You might call it the demographication of everything. When we're gripped by this growing impulse, we tend to follow the demographication rules, and when we engage in this unhelpful conduct, we may help keep Others in office.
Silverman is highly learned. We aren't high on the basic framework he brings to his work, on his thoroughly well-intentioned but unhelpful point of view.
Possibly coming: A look at some of the comments to Silverman's sardonic piece