Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Thanksgiving story an oversimplification? It's still OK
We see turkeys on the cover of the new "Morris Area Merchants" advertising publication. Kudos to the publication for recognizing the true spirit of the upcoming weekend.
The turkeys point to Thanksgiving which is a holiday with a grand purpose. We needn't recognize "Black Friday" so much. Only in recent years has "Black Friday" picked up steam to where it might be seen as overshadowing Thanksgiving. Of course it's up to all of us to set our own priorities.
We could just cancel cable TV if we didn't want to hear so much about Black Friday. The media have elevated the "shopping" day beyond reasonable proportion. We can reject that. Fox News would be another good reason to cancel cable TV. But I'm unemployed so I might get bored.
I used to discuss with Glen Helberg how unemployed people are subject to feeling depressed on holidays. "Normal" people slow down and relish the time off. For those of us who are shiftless by comparison, we see no contrast. You get the blues. There's a feeling of relief when "the routine" kicks in again (and I can watch "Morning Joe" at 5 p.m. weekdays as scheduled). On normal workdays you can check the stock market futures at that very early hour. You can see how Europe is doing with the "footsie" (the European FTSE). When I was a kid it wouldn't have crossed anyone's mind to check the stock market futures very early in the morning. In fact, we'd get a "test pattern" if we turned on the TV. So, times can change remarkably.
As a kid I received the standard imagery about Thanksgiving. Pilgrims and the "natives" together, rejoicing and giving thanks. It was a benign and uplifting story. We'd see the famous portrait of "George Washington in the clouds" out by the milk machine in the commons area (at Longfellow Elementary, today an office building for St. Francis Health Services).
The iconic status of Washington was benign and uplifting too. The turbulence of the late 1960s and '70s began to obscure a lot of that. Much of that turbulence was unavoidable. We needed turbulence to get out of Viet Nam and advance civil rights. But a lot of that fizzled off like fireworks gone awry, i.e. it got misdirected.
The all-out assault on American traditions and myths probably wasn't needed. It wasn't necessary for the deconstructionists to take over so much of American education. It's fine for kids to learn the story of Betsy Ross sewing the flag. The "great men" approach to history was far from perfect but its replacement - the story of aggrieved groups - had a discouraging air. We could easily see both approaches had oversimplifications.
Kids are of course smarter than many of us think. They know when they're being "sold" something.
Is the Thanksgiving story unhealthy because it suggests the Europeans were eager to break bread with the natives and make accommodations, when in fact the natives were headed toward much travail? History is a messy story of the strong exploiting the weak. Identifying heroes and villains is a pursuit that seems to get us nowhere. There are those who want to diss the history of Fort Snelling. So much misery heaped on the Indians, so the argument goes. I think the fort ought to represent one of the most fascinating historical locations in Minnesota. We can't make history "right" by all the aggrieved groups.
The so-called white people had no cakewalk. Just think of the percentage of the male population killed as casualties of the Civil War. (Timeout: I'm uncomfortable with the "white" and "non-white" dichotomy of terms. Why should all "non-whites" be lumped under one label?)
The Civil War cause was good for the Union. But think of the massive pain and death needed to advance it. We are so human an animal. So in the end we must consider the traditional Thanksgiving story a benign piece of imagery for kids as they develop their most benevolent outlook. They'll eventually learn that history is written by the winners. Plymouth and its "rock" (much smaller than most of us think) endured in our national memory. The English prevailed.
New Englanders were at the forefront of molding America's collective memory. Let's call it a bit of a creation myth. We teach kids about the piety and work ethic of these gentle people who appeared to seed the new land. All fine and wonderful, but of course the settlement and development of this land was more complicated.
Of course we know all about Columbus. But that was in 1492, long before the Pilgrims who arrived at that "rock" (five feet square) in 1620. Did nothing much happen in between? Oh my.
Europeans other than the Pilgrims had made quite extreme inroads in this continent by the time the stovepipe hat-wearing Pilgrims broke bread with the red Indians. Europeans had reached half of what would become the 48 states. Maybe the Kensington Runestone wasn't such a big deal.
Why in heck don't we treat Giovanni da Verrazzano the same way as Christopher Columbus? There's a bridge in New York City named for the former. I remember when National Lampoon had a satire that had the bridge collapsing under the weight of runners beginning the New York City Marathon. This was before we had The Onion. It would be a perfect Onion gag. If you don't regularly check The Onion website, you should.
Ol' Giovanni toured the whole eastern seaboard of the U.S. in 1524. At one point he ordered a member of his crew to swim ashore. The natives took this man to a fire. But it was to warm him and not to roast him! Why not commemorate this instead of just those black-clad Pilgrims by their "rock?"
Verrazzano ventured north where he spotted a wide bay. This would become New York Harbor. He was an Italian commanding a French ship. The story of this most intrepid soul ends tragically. He visited a Caribbean island in 1528. There he was seized and eaten by natives (sorry for the bluntness). We do have the bridge named in his honor: the "narrows" bridge where he sailed in 1524. Quite famous in his own time, he has faded.
The Portuguese really got out and about at one time. They sailed along both U.S. coasts in the 16th Century. Spanish conquistadors got inside our continent in 1542. My, they rode rafts along the Mississippi River. And would you believe, the intrepid Spaniards broke bread and "gave thanks" with natives 56 years before the iconic Plymouth Rock story?
Some English explorers built a fort on Cuttyhunk, an island, in 1602, motivated not by a desire for religious freedom but to seek wealth digging "sassafras." This commodity was most sought back home in Europe, as it cured "the clap." It's not quite so endearing a story as the Pilgrims with their newfound native compatriots. But hey, let's stick with those charming Pilgrims and all that benevolent imagery. It's good for kids.
And never forget: "History is written by the winners."
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org