Instead, we should atone for the genocide that was incited -- and condoned
-- by the very men we idolize as our 'heroic' founding fathers.
One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement
of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day
of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.
In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have
marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political
ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the
early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.
Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday
impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans
into apoplectic fits -- which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy
and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.
That the world's great powers achieved "greatness" through criminal
brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies
are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.
But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin --
the genocide of indigenous people -- is of special importance today. It's now
routine -- even among conservative commentators -- to describe the United States
as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent
one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted
and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.
One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving
at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story
about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to
Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived
in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following
the Pilgrims first winter.
Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it's also true
that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving
for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children,
part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English
invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between
95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were
left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the
view of polite society.
Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture
(and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population)
celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men
we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.
The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians'
land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving "wild
beasts" from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, "both being
beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape."
Thomas Jefferson -- president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence,
which refers to Indians as the "merciless Indian Savages" -- was known
to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn't stop him in 1807 from
writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes,
"[W]e shall destroy all of them."
As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt
(president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an
inevitable process "due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races
which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are
gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of
the world hold sway."
Roosevelt also once said, "I don't go so far as to think that the only
good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't
like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."
How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical
figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to
Nazis? Here's how "respectable" politicians, pundits, and professors
play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history
is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history,
and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations' lack of knowledge
about, and respect for, that history.
In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding
fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination
of those who "settled" the country -- and about how crucial it is
for children to learn these things.
But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations
that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable -- such as
the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of
the United States -- suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one
is asked, "Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?"
This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class -- one that can extol
the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same
time, argue that we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about history.
This off-and-on engagement with history isn't of mere academic interest; as
the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in
the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about
historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which
makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures -- such as the invasion
and occupation of Iraq -- as another benevolent action.
Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture.
After raising the barbarism of America's much-revered founding fathers in a
lecture, I was once accused of trying to "humble our proud nation"
and "undermine young people's faith in our country."
Yes, of course -- that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice
the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined
with great power, lead to great abuses of power.
History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling
it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology.
While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that
the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology
of Hindutva into historical fact.
Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History
can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part
of a process of liberation. The truth won't set us free, but the telling of
truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.
As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty
of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their
waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the
day's mythology on our minds.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin,
and the author of, most recently, The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race,
Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005).