Americans have a great and exuberant tradition that touches our sense of belonging and our pride in coming together. No, I am not referring to Thanksgiving, that festival of gratitude, generosity, and welcome. I am referring to the equally great and exuberant tradition of trash-talking other people.
Supposedly we have reformed. Ethnic slurs that were once common have retreated to the dark corners of dive bars and the even darker corners of anti-social media. We live in a time when a whole new admonitory vocabulary has emerged to warn people away from anything remotely racist. “Cultural appropriation” is taboo—as must be the word “taboo” itself, a Tongan word appropriated into English by Capt. James Cook.
We worry about demeaning stereotypes, microaggressions, implicit bias, normativity, neo-colonialism, and the “othering” of others. Surely we are more enlightened than those vile, imperialistic, hate-filled, white, heteronormative people who… Oops.
Ethnic slurs haven’t disappeared. They have just slipped into a new register. Black lives matter, but “all lives matter?” Them’s fighting words. Attacking someone else, after all, is a classic way of demonstrating loyalty to one’s own group, claiming group superiority, and policing the edges.
Gyasi Ross, a Blackfeet (Native American) author (Huffington Post, Gawker, and Indian Country Today) attorney, “rapper, speaker and storyteller,” explained on MSNBC the other day, speaking of the Mayflower Pilgrims, “Instead of bringing stuffing and biscuits, those settlers brought genocide and violence.” Speaking of Thanksgiving, Ross adds, “That genocide and violence is still on the menu.”
If take this as an attempt to right the historical record, it is hopeless. The Pilgrims didn’t bring “genocide” to America. They barely brought themselves, with half of their company dying that first winter, in 1620-21.
For that matter, genocide was already here among native peoples, who frequently fought wars of extermination against rival tribes. The archaeological record testifies to such events, and Europeans had little to teach the native peoples they encountered anything about ambush, torture, and the death penalty.
But if Ross is simply attempting to show off his command of vituperative insult towards people of a tribe other than his own, he has done a pretty good job. His pitch is that the “white people” have a Thanksgiving “mythology” that portrays the Pilgrims as “having brought something of great value that enriches the people who are already here.” But the truth is that the Pilgrims “were broke,” and “they brought nothing of value.”
That, however, was hardly the view of the Wampanoag, with whom the white settlers of Plymouth celebrated that feast in the fall of 1621 that we call the first Thanksgiving. The Wampanoag first of all saw the Pilgrims as a valuable ally against their enemies, the Narragansett, who appeared ready to attack.
They signed a treaty with the settlers that lasted unbroken for 50 years. The Wampanoag also eagerly engaged the settlers in trade to gain access to European manufactured goods. Moreover, the Pilgrims brought Christianity, which within a generation attracted a large number of Indian converts.
Granted, Ross may see all of this as “nothing of value,” but who is Ross to judge the decisions of 17th century Native Americans, rendered desperate by an epidemic disease that killed most of their tribe—a disease that swept through New England years before the Pilgrims arrived?
The real truth is that Ross has a niche in contemporary American life that has nothing to do with his ancestry or culture. It is the niche of a professional angertainer. It plays well on TV and other media because, after all, articulate displays of anger are indeed entertaining, and also because we need some comic relief dressed up as indignation. This isn’t always or necessarily bad: Let’s go, Brandon!
But humped-up anger is pretty much all the leftist media have to offer us these days. Real arguments grounded in facts are in short supply for the Bidenized left, but sneers presented as if they reveal hidden realities can still energize the base. After all, Nicole Hannah-Jones has just conjured a 600-page book out of her imaginary version of the American past. Condensed version: white men caused every harm, every misery, every injustice inflicted on black people from 1619 to today. Ross has the advantage of brevity.
Those Mayflower Pilgrims brought a few other items that also missed Ross’s list. They brought religious tolerance both as a principle and as a practice. The Mayflower Compact guaranteed that all the settlers, only about half of whom were Pilgrims, would enjoy the right to confess their own faiths. (The Puritans, who arrived later and settled Massachusetts Bay, were not tolerant.)
The settlers of Plymouth had one more thing: democratic self-government. Eventually Plymouth became the model for the New England town and, from there, the English settlement of the whole country.
Today the left professes to despise colonialism and to see nothing but the usurpation of people and destruction of the environment as the consequence. This is a little odd, given that the left also generally favors the abolition of national borders.
I don’t know if that applies in Ross’s case. He may want to keep the borders (or perhaps expand them) of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The loss of control of land, loss of independence, and other indignities by Native Americans were experienced by many as a dismal fate.
But history is complex. Some Native Americans embraced Western civilization; some sought a synthesis of tradition and the West; and some, like Ross, found places within the Western tradition where accusation and anger became a new kind of currency.
In that vein, hating Thanksgiving, like hating Columbus, has become a ritual. Some people watch the Macy’s Parade; some watch football; some enjoy the homecoming of relatives; some offer God sincere prayers of gratitude. And some make up stories about violence and genocide.