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My New Book!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April 17, 2012: How Would a Patriot Act? Part One

[Still spending much of my blog-time working on a new writing project, about which I promise to say more when it’s possible to do so (as I know you’re on the edge of your e-seats). So to follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per century. Nominations very welcome as always!]

Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Tisquantum, better known by the Anglicized name “Squanto.”

It’s fair to say that the whole tone of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—and also, quite literally, of the Pilgrims’ first experiences in America, as Bradford describes them at least—changes with the arrival of Squanto (paragraph 136 in that edition). From that first mention it’s clear that this is a man with a complex identity and perspective: he is described as “a native of this place” but also one who has “been in England,” and with his two languages he connects the Pilgrims to the local Wampanoag chief Massasoit, with whom they make their first peace treaty. And Bradford finds Squanto’s experiences, as a kidnapped slave turned explorer and translator, compelling enough to spend most of the rest of this chapter quoting another Englishman’s narrative of them.

Partly Bradford’s extended focus is due to his culturally myopic sense of Squanto as literally a gift from God, “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” Yet if we set aside the paternalism and, again, myopia necessary to define another person as an instrument for one’s own good, Bradford’s descriptions, coupled with the history provided in the extended narrative, can help us realize a striking and crucial fact: Squanto turned a horrific and traumatic set of experiences, ones based directly on cultural conflict and oppression, into a perspective and life that worked toward and indeed modeled cultural conversation and connection. He did so, it seems clear, for the good both of the Pilgrims and of the Wampanoags, and more exactly for the good of the new community that came into existence the second those two peoples met. What’s more patriotic than that?

As will be the case for all of this week’s focal figures, there’s plenty more, and more complexity and even tragedy, in Squanto’s story and what it symbolizes than I can get into here. The arc of the 17th century in Massachusetts was not, after all, toward justice. Yet if I have one overarching argument here, it’s the same one that’s at the heart of my fourth book: we can’t seek our ideal America, nor our ideal Americans, by eliding the darkest histories; instead we have to look to precisely those histories and find the genuine and impressive patriots who lived and engaged with and responded to them. Tisquantum’s a great place to start.

Next patriot tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any nominations?

4/17 Memory Day nominees: Two American mythmakers, Alexander Cartwright (one of a few possible fathers of baseball, but certainly a pioneer of that defining American sport in any case) and Thornton Wilder (for his beautiful and bittersweet Our Town, his biting The Skin of Our Teeth, and much else besides).

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