Thanksgiving Day is here, and as is the fashion, it’s taking a beating. “What is Thanksgiving to Indigenous People? ‘A Day of Mourning,’” writes the onetime daily Bible of American mass culture, USA Today. The Washington Post fused a clickhole headline format with white guilt to create, “This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later.” Even the pundits who didn’t rummage in the past in search of reasons for Americans to flog themselves this week found some in the future, a la the Post’s climate-change take on Turkey Day menus: “What’s on the Thanksgiving table in a hotter, drier world?”
MSNBC meanwhile kept things festive by reminding us, with regard to the now-infamous Pilgrims, that “Instead of bringing stuffing and biscuits, those settlers brought genocide and violence”:
Where’s all this headed? In the space of a generation America has gone from being a country brimming with undeserved over-confidence, to one whose intellectual culture has turned into an agonizing, apparently interminable run of performative self-flagellation.
Whether or not to enjoy Thanksgiving is not the hard part of the American citizen’s test. Thanksgiving is awesome. Everything about it, from the mashed potatoes to the demented relatives to the pumpkin pies to the farts, is top-drawer holiday enjoyment. The only logical complaint about modern Thanksgiving involves forcing the poor Detroit Lions to play a marquee role every year. I think we can all agree that whole situation is a net minus, especially for them, no matter how funny the first fifteen minutes of those games usually are.
But the historical self-mortification has gotten out of hand. American exceptionalism used to mean 300 million yahoos being so convinced they were a unique force for good in the world that history before 1776 was irrelevant. We’re now living through the moronic inverse: America is such a unique evil, we’re told, so much the standard-bearer for the oppression of innocent peoples everywhere, that human suffering before 1776 is hardly worth mentioning. Or before 1492, as it were, since a lot of the current fashion stems from our pseudo-intellectual class being unable suddenly to handle the revelations of one decades-old book.
In the opening pages of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, we read the log of Christopher Columbus, who recounts the first meeting of Europeans with the native Arawaks of the Bahamas:
They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it and cut themselves out of ignorance… With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
Zinn’s Columbus is a genocidal monster who not only massacred natives from The Bahamas to Haiti, and sold women and children by the thousands for “sex and labor,” but was so personally petty that he stole the reward of the poor sailor on his own ship who spotted land first, by claiming the feat himself. It’s hard to read Zinn’s account, which includes horrifying details like Indians murdering their own children to spare them the tortures of life under Spaniards, and not have a second thought or ten about the legend of the “discovery of America.”
I found A People’s History a fascinating and enjoyable read when I first read it in college, but that was when it was a ballsy, quasi-forbidden counterfactual to official narrative, not anyone’s idea of the actual “History of the United States.” The national idea of historical reflection back then was Forrest Gump, literally a two-hour shrug. In that context, the book made sense. Decades later, in the middle of a reverse cultural mania that devours it as gospel, Zinn’s book reads like the rantings of a mental patient.
After he finishes his tale of Columbus’s rampage through sinless indigenous cultures, Zinn contrasts it with the fables Americans of the time were all taught in school, in which “there is no bloodshed” upon the his arrival. He goes on to torch as an example the work of Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, whose Christopher Columbus, Mariner contains only a passing reference to the “cruel policy initiated by Columbus… [that] resulted in complete genocide.”
It takes stones to write an entire book about a major historical figure and include as a throwaway line, “And by the way, he committed genocide.” Incredibly, Zinn manages to be just as bad, if not worse. Of course A People’s History was designed to be the missing case for the prosecution, a chronicle of everything the Morrisons of the world left out, but his version of five hundred years of history contains just two characters, pure villains and pure victims. You’ve heard of Alien versus Predator; the People’s History could have been titled Hitlers and Baby Seals.
All his Europeans from Columbus on down are more or less indistinguishably monstrous, and even Abraham Lincoln and FDR are almost interchangeable capitalist tools, at most to be congratulated for being unenthusiastic oppressors. (The book in this sense reads a lot like the 1619 Project). A People’s History after its release in 1980 was often described as “radical,” but the radicalism wasn’t in the subject matter, but its maniacal sorting of people into two simplistic piles. Decades before it was fashionable, Zinn sketched out an intersectional construct that flattened much of humanity into a single interconnected mass of one-dimensional victimhood, “centering” the matrix of America’s oppressed:
The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees…
No matter how interesting a book he or she is able to write, any author who admits to looking out at the world and seeing only “victims and executioners” needs psychological help. Unfortunately, Zinn in this respect turned out to be a pioneer, presaging a generation of comic-book thinkers who understand things in binary terms, forever preoccupied with cramming people in neat categories of oppressors and oppressed.
Such mental habits are the fashion now and will definitely put you in a bind on Thanksgiving. How can I eat turkey and stuffing with a smile, when Columbus massacred the Arawaks? When the English forced the Wampanoags off their land and made many convert to Christianity? When Lincoln told Horace Greeley, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it”?
How? Maybe because you’re more than three years old, and don’t need fairy tales to be real in order to enjoy dinner with family and a football game?
We don’t ask Russians how they can sit around the yelochka every New Year and open presents knowing that Ivan the Terrible used to roast prisoners in giant frying pans, or how they can smoke Belomorkanal cigarettes knowing the real White Sea canal is filled with the bones of slave laborers. I think even most MSNBC anchors would agree, that would be stupid. But we do this to ourselves all the time now, and every year it gets worse.
All this is just a come-down from the high of Reagan-era exceptionalism. The drug has worn off and we’re realizing, in the cold light of sobriety, that we suck every bit as much as other nations. So we’re swinging, as all people with hangovers do, to an opposite extreme.
We’ve lost touch with our real story, which is about us, not the centuries-old adventures of toffs in wigs. The Founding Fathers may have been scum, but they didn’t just steal a continent from the indigenous residents, they stole one from a British King, which is, come on, hilarious. These revolutionaries — Kurt Vonnegut called them “Sea Pirates” — then drew up a document sanctifying their own pursuit of obscene wealth, flying flags that were strikingly like “Let’s Go Brandon” in sentiment while reveling in the horror they inspired in aristocrats all over Europe. Then, in a move that secured their heist while providing the manpower they needed for expansion, they started opening their doors to castoffs, screwups, and cultists from other countries.
Almost none of us are related to Pilgrims or Founders. Nearly all of us descended from those subsequent waves of weirdos and refugees who came from all over, some not by choice, and forged the real character of our stolen nation. Many of our ancestors had their hands forced elsewhere, from Jews in the Pale fleeing pogroms to Irish escaping famines to Armenians running from Ottoman genocides. Once they got here, they happily planted Sea Pirate flags on their front doors and set about inventing everything from cat litter to alternating current, while mostly refraining from murdering one another. It was an insane setup, but they made the whole thing work, which is a pretty amazing story even figuring in the horribleness, and really what we’re celebrating every November. You have to reduce the American experience to a few ridiculously grim variables, and remove everything from movies to rock n’ roll to monster dunks, to spend today sulking.
Years ago, during a time in my life when I’d fled the United States to St. Petersburg, Russia with no intention of returning, my best friend was a Swiss named Daniel, with whom I’d studied at a Soviet University. Like all people from his country, Daniel was a polyglot. He spoke perfect English and Russian, but hanging out with him was disorienting, because he’d be talking like a mechanic from Baltimore and suddenly forget the word for washing machine and start miming a spin cycle. It took getting used to, but it was funny — we laughed a lot. On Thanksgiving one year, I told him I was going to the consulate for dinner. “Thanksgiving,” he said. “That’s the one where you killed all the Indians, right?”
“Not me personally, but yes.”
“Bring back leftovers,” he answered. I went to the consulate, which of course spared no expense in laying out a fantastic spread, but spent most of the day shooting baskets in a back lot with a group of black Marine guards. On the way out I stole a haul of turkey and cranberry sauce, which Daniel and I devoured with a bottle of vodka later that night, in one of the best Thanksgivings of my life. This holiday is about friends and family. Enjoy them today, don’t listen to the haters, and go Lions.