Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

(via Pharyngula)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. (Shopping is even a part of it these days, as Christmas sales have already started.)

Even in grade school, the myths of Thanksgiving - much more than the history of it - get pounded into everyone. (Part of that is because there's no separation of church and state issues when it comes to this holiday.)

But I was an adult before I heard this, and I can't tell you how profoundly I was affected by it:
From 1616 to 1619, a series of virgin-soil epidemics spread by European trading vessels ravaged the New England seaboard, wiping out up to 95 percent of the Algonkian-speaking native population from Maine to Narragansett Bay. The coast was a vast killing zone of abandoned agricultural fields and decimated villages littered with piles of bones and skulls. This is what the Pilgrims encountered when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Not a pristine wilderness, but the devastated ruins of a once-thriving culture, a haunting boneyard which English libertine Thomas Morton later described as a “newfound Golgotha.”

My ancestors were among those Europeans who settled in what is now Massachusetts and Connecticut in the early 1600s. In school, I'd always heard that they'd found what they considered to be nearly-empty wilderness, but the implication was always that the natives had a hunting and gathering lifestyle which necessitated a very low population level (in other words, that Europeans simply misunderstood when they thought the land empty).

In fact, the native tribes had already been devastated - nearly wiped out - by European diseases before most of them had ever even seen a European. The land was empty - relatively speaking - because so many of the previous inhabitants had already died in horrendous epidemics.

No one is to blame for that. The Europeans had no more idea of what caused disease than the Native Americans did. There is plenty of blame which can be assigned to other historical events, but not to this. It was a tragedy, made even worse because the natives - at the end of a long line of immigration, themselves - were less diverse genetically than other populations of human beings.

Eventually, they would have recovered from that, and from subsequent epidemics, too. But 'empty' land is a powerful attraction to... well, human beings in general. And the surviving tribes weren't given the time they needed.

As that column continues:
The collision of worldviews [*] is almost impossible to imagine. On the one hand, a European society full of religious fervor and colonizing energy; on the other, a native society shattered and reeling from the greatest catastrophe it had ever known. The Puritans were forever examining their own spiritual state. Having come to America with the goal of separating themselves from polluted forms of worship, a great deal of their energy was focused on battling demons, both within themselves and at large in the world. Puritan clerics confused the Indian deity Kiehtan with God, and they conflated Hobbamock, a fearsome nocturnal spirit associated with Indian shamans, or powwows, with Satan. Because of this special connection many Puritans believed that the powwows, and by extension all the New England Indians, were bound by a covenant with the devil. Indians thus became symbolic adversaries, their very existence a threat to the Englishmen’s prized religious identities.

Meanwhile, the Great Migration of the 1630s was bringing in thousands of new colonists, many of them younger siblings shut out of an inheritance back in England, who were hungry for the opportunity to become property owners in their own right. There was a great need for more land. And so, tragically – and not for the last time in American history – self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology coincided. Indian-hating became the fashion. Religious piety provided a motive for armed violence.

In May of 1637, colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay, with a group of their Indian allies, set fire to a fortified Pequot stronghold on the Mystic River. An estimated 700 Pequots perished, mostly women and children, and the few survivors were shipped to Bermuda and sold into slavery. On the heels of the virgin-soil epidemics that had decimated the native population, the ghastly specter of genocide had reached the shores of America. In 1675, bloody King Phillip’s War put the finishing touches on what was more or less the total extermination of the eastern woodland Indians.

"Self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology." Yup. It's always easy to believe what you want to believe. And we see how well fear works to cause disaster, even today.

I don't dwell on the past. We can't change the past, and it's important to look forward. Of course, I'm a white descendent of those first 'illegal immigrants,' so that's easy for me to say, isn't it? But look at Islamic countries which are still bitter about the Crusades, for chrissake, blaming their lack of progress since then on everyone else but themselves. Dwelling on the past does no one any good.

Nevertheless, we certainly shouldn't forget the past, and we shouldn't disguise reality with happy myths - even on Thanksgiving. We can't be blamed for our ancestors, and our ancestors can't be blamed for those disease epidemics. But there is plenty they can and should be blamed for, and we European-Americans have benefited from some truly horrific acts (including slavery, of course).

We are not to blame for those acts, but we still benefit from them, even today. Even if your ancestors didn't arrive in this land until centuries later, you still benefit from them. I'm not a Christian. I don't believe we inherit the sins of our forefathers. But we do have obligations. It's just that those obligations are to everyone, and that we need to focus on the path ahead, not back.

Use the lessons of the past to avoid making similar mistakes now and in the future. Recognize the horrors which self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology can cause. Determine to do right to everyone going forward (recognizing that mistakes will still be made, since we're never going to be perfect).

Above all, we need to reject the approach of right-wing apologists like David Barton and the Texas State Board of Education to just rewrite history so that it agrees with what you want to believe, rather than accepting reality.

However, in America, Thanksgiving is more about myths than about history. And we Americans are very resistant to giving up our myths.

*PS. Given the situation, I don't see how that "collision of worldviews" would ever have turned out well. That's not to excuse anything, but just to recognize that people are people. Self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology are powerful motivators. We struggle with them even today.

But that's not to say that a collision of worldviews will always end badly, certainly not. Back then, the native tribes had been - and continued to be - decimated by disease epidemics. That left them too weak to offer much resistance. Plus, we do learn. We aren't the same people as our ancestors. None of us are.

Today's right-wing fanatics look at history - their distorted view of history, at least - and proclaim that Hispanic immigration is going to end with all white Americans - and all black Americans, too, apparently - ethnically cleansed (among other hysterically crazy claims). Yeah, talk about self-interest, fear, and deep-seated ideology, huh?

But how crazy is that? Historically, America has not just survived, but prospered, from wave after wave of immigration. All of our ancestors were immigrants (even the Native Americans, I'd argue). We became Americans. That's one of the great things America has shown the world.

It hasn't always been easy. There were riots in some American cities when my Irish ancestors started arriving here in large numbers. Now, their descendents protest against other immigrants. (It's the American way, huh? LOL)

The fact is, a collision of worldviews is a good thing, if violence isn't involved. We benefit from competing ideas. Of course, new ideas bring change, and conservatives in general fear change. But that's what brings progress. Stagnation is never good.

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