Thursday, November 25, 2010
November 25, 2010: A Thanksgiving Turkey
Nothing would make me more thankful—okay, that’s not true, but in this particular space, very few things would make more thankful—than if I never had to engage in my AmericanStudies thoughts with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their ilk; if, that is, this could be a space where the worst of our contemporary political culture, and even more exactly the most egregiously horrific voices therein, could be genuinely and correctly absent from our national narratives and conversations. But they can’t, at least not entirely, and there’s a very simple and significant reason why: such voices have become more and more centrally concerned with putting forth their own, almost always profoundly inaccurate and destructive, visions of our national history and identity; and so part of the work of a public scholar in American Studies has to be engaging with and correcting such visions. Beck is probably the most consistent offender in this regard—just google “Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson” if you doubt it; I’ll be damned if I’ll waste one of my two links on these folks—but today, by request, I’m writing instead about El Rushbo (as he calls himself at the end of the story I’ll reference, and to which I also won’t link), and his yearly recounting of “The REAL Story of Thanksgiving” on his radio program.
As Limbaugh frames it, quoting—he claims—directly from William Bradford (and I know this is my second Bradford-related post in less than a week, but it is Thanksgiving week at least), the first Thanksgiving was not at all about the Pilgrims’ celebrating their survival of the first year in the New World, nor about the related communal gathering with some of the local Native Americans who had so influenced that survival (not that Rush mentions that latter point at all, shockingly). Instead, in this version, the first Thanksgiving represented the culmination of the Pilgrims’ transition from a socialist vision of land and community to a capitalist one, and thus was a celebration of the first (of many, Rush dose not hesitate to add) rejection of an American experiment with socialism. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that he is entirely wrong on the specifics: the first Thanksgiving, such as it was (and it is never given that name in Bradford’s text; the Pilgrims did call a separate event in the summer of 1623 by the name, but that day was devoted entirely to prayer and has nothing to do with any subsequent versions of Thanksgiving), was a multi-day autumn festival with which the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in the fall of 1621, and which did include a few of the local Native Americans and most certainly did implicitly recognize that Plymouth Plantation had survived its first and most brutal winter and was beginning to prosper.
Limbaugh is not wrong that the plantation eventually transitioned from a communal to an individual policy of landholding, a shift that took place about two years later and did indicate the continuing evolution of the Pilgrims’ perspectives on their community and mission and identity (topics that require and have received extended and complex analytical work). But Limbaugh’s error in connecting this transition to “Thanksgiving” is to my mind deeply significant for at least three reasons. First, it illustrates that he has no actual interest in the specifics or details of the text he is allegedly citing and even quoting, that instead his engagement with this key American text is both too poor to be accepted in a first-year college writing course and likely to produce many thousands of Americans with a similarly false understanding. Second, it is a great piece of evidence for how much a political approach to analyses of and narratives about our past is on its face doomed to oversimplify and falsify, to find what the political narratives need rather than the historical record contains. And third, and most relevantly to this blog, it demonstrates how much such mythical versions of our history tend to connect to our most overarching cultural markers—such as Thanksgiving; see also the controversies over the Pledge of Allegiance, the “War on Christmas,” the Ten Commandments in courthouses, and so on—and thus seek to define our most shared national events and elements through their particular, political, and propagandistic lens.
The answer, for me, is not to respond with propaganda on or for the other side, tempting as that might be; such a move is probably unwise or at least irresponsible even in the political arena, but is critically off-base when it comes to the work and narratives that comprise American Studies and history and identity. Instead, the way to push back against Limbaugh and Beck’s narratives of our history is first and foremost to point to the history itself, to highlight the texts and voices and stories that constitute it, and ask us to engage with them on their own terms, as fully and broadly as we can, and see what vision of America is the result. I’m pretty confident it won’t be Rush’s. More tomorrow, on the unbelievably radical and inspiring argument about race advanced by a 19th-century author whose most overt cultural presence is a Thanksgiving song.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The full text of Bradford’s book; the harvest festival is very briefly described on p.162, and the shift in ownership on p.216: http://www.mith2.umd.edu/eada/html/display.php?docs=bradford_history.xml
2) Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation making Thanksgiving a national holiday: http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/thanks.htm