Archive for November, 2010

Readings in History : The Feel Good Fable of Thanksgiving

28 November 2010
Thanksgiving Dinner, celebrated every year on the last Thursday in November, is an iconic holiday in USA much as 4th of July is celebrated as the Independence day. On my South West flight on Tuesday last (23rd November) from San Francisco to Phoenix, there was a halt at Los Angeles to drop off and pick up flyers. As the plane got near empty with disembarkers leaving and embarkers yet to step in, a steward who looked to me of Chinese extraction came and cheerfully enquired, “Getting home for Thanksgiving?” Incomprehension visibly spread to his face when I asked in response “What is Thanksgiving?” He was happy to answer once he was sure that this weird response was not an outcome of some tomfoolery but of genuine ignorance of an alien coming from India. He solemnly declared that it is an occasion to express gratitude to god for the bounty of nature “he” has showered upon us and remember the native Indians for some (vague) help they had rendered in the early days of the arrival of Europeans (& Christianity) in Americas. I wondered silently how come a US citizen of Chinese extraction is dutifully celebrating Thanksgiving, only to check myself by remembering what Historian Zinn wrote about the Chinese workers who were brought & drafted in the construction of rail-roads network a long ago. Later in Phoenix I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner along with my hosts, who have immigrated here from India, by a couple, who and other invitees too were first generation immigrants from India. When I asked the host what is Thanksgiving, his daughter – 12 something – eagerly got up & declared she would tell. I was more than happy. But instead of the verbal narrative I imagined I will be treated to, she disappeared upstairs only to reappear sometime later with a single page in her hand, which she gave to me to read. When I started reading I realized it was an assignment she had prepared as homework and it was already corrected by her teacher. Her homework mentioned “The Separatists” & a native Indian “Squanto”, who belonged to Pawtuxet Indians. He helped the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after his flight back to freedom from Malaga-Spain where he had been sold as a slave by arranging their friendship with neighbouring Wampanoag Indian tribesmen. He & these tribesmen helped the colonists by teaching them how to raise corn, fish & to hunt. Coming as it did after a hard winter when the colonists had starved & half of them perished, they expressed their gratitude by inviting the Indians for a feast of harvest festival later on when food was bountiful. According to one account this was the first Thanksgiving dinner. Another story she recounted was about those, who arrived later in USA & celebrated the feasting as a religious festival by thanking the god for his mercy. By all means these two versions seem to have taken hold of the popular US consciousness. The following video captures these narratives (click here to watch) :
All popular myths and legends are often monopolized by the ruling classes to serve their interests and agendas by imbuing them with “nationalistic fervour”; and thus widening the appeal of their policies and securing a broad based support for them even if these have very little in them for the common women and men. Thanksgiving was no exception. In 1777, Continental Congress (congregation of the rich & powerful in the colonies who saw greater benefit for themselves by separating from the British rule), decreed that all the 13 states would celebrate the Thanksgiving as a holiday to commemorate the defeat of the British colonial army at Saratoga. Later in 1963, Abraham Lincoln saw the unifying potential of the Thanksgiving amidst the civil war and decreed in 1863 after the victory of unionists at Gettysberg that it would be celebrated as a national holiday on the last Thursday of November. Still later it was adopted by the industry to promote consumerist culture and Thanksgiving officially opened the Christmas shopping season. The following day – called Black Friday – is becoming the greatest day for the massive US retailing industry. The “Black” attached to “Friday” is a misnomer as the day actually denotes the biggest celebration of consumerism – “shop till one drops dead” – and massive, often unruly crowds gather at the gates of the store to hunt bargains queuing up in the night for long.
I was not content with these fables, which had a notoriously “flimsy” feel good factor embedded in them. I have been reading the “People’s History of the United States of America” by Howard Zinn, who has painstakingly researched how the dominant narrative popular in US imagination has clearly omitted many inconvenient truths and chose to emphasize only those “truths” which buttress its own position. Zinn may not be very widely known in USA, nor is he a “popular” authority on US History because his book is unabashedly subversive of “popular myths” promoted in official history. But he still has substantial following at least among those who are fade up with fairytales masquerading as history. David Horsey is one such individual. He in his blog has eloquently captured the take of Howard Zinn on Thanksgiving. It deserves reproducing at great length.
Put succinctly, that is how Howard Zinn might describe our most solemn national holiday. In his book, A People’s History of the United States, the leftist historian tells America’s founding stories from the vantage point of Indians, African slaves, indentured servants and exploited immigrants and what he describes is enough to kill your appetite for turkey and cranberry sauce.
The understanding many Americans have of their country’s early history is stuck at the level of Thanksgiving pageants and childish rhymes about Columbus sailing “the ocean blue.” The truth is more complicated and less edifying. The Europeans who came to the Americas were not meek refugees; they were conquerors. Some came for freedom, many came for gold and most came for land. They took what they wanted and justified their merciless methods in the same way today’s jihadists justify theirs: God willed it.
In recounting the vicious warfare that ensued in the years not long after the first fabled Thanksgiving, Zinn quotes Puritan leader William Bradford’s description of an English raid on a Pequot village. Bradford recalled how the Indians who managed to escape from their burning homes were slain with swords, hacked to pieces and run through with rapiers. Few in the village got away. At least 400 — and, perhaps as many as 600 — were killed.
Bradford wrote:

It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and (the English) gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands…

This was just one of many reciprocal atrocities that ended only when the natives were driven from their land and nearly exterminated.
Reaching back a century before Plymouth Rock to our seminal foundation story, Zinn quotes men who witnessed the slaughter that Christopher Columbus oversaw after he opened the New World in 1492. Returning to Spain from his first voyage, Columbus made wild promises to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, telling them he would bring back shiploads of gold and hordes of slaves if they would finance a second expedition. He got 17 ships and 1,200 men who proceeded to murder their way through the Caribbean islands.
They found very little gold and thousands of the enslaved natives died, but Columbus and his men kept trying. In the process, they wiped out entire populations of the people who had naively greeted Columbus with gifts and hospitality.
Zinn contends rightly that the way we understand history has consequences in contemporary life and politics. If that were not the case, there would be no fights in local school boards over history texts and curriculum. Zinn’s purpose in writing his own version of the American story was to fill in the huge gaps that left out women, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, laborers and poor immigrants while giving white, male presidents, generals, adventurers and capitalists most of the credit for building the nation.
The selective representation of convenient “truths” by the dominant class is not isolated just to USA, but is a recurring motif in every dominant narrative of history or even contemporary politics. In India, the 15th of August is celebrated as the national independence day that marks the freedom from British colonial yoke. The dominant narrative demands that each Indian should feel “equally patriotic” on this day and always. But has independence influenced the life of every Indian in more or less the same way. The answer is an emphatic no. In fact some seem to have cornered the benefits of freedom highly disproportionately, while many have been left by the way side. Yet, demands made on the “patriotic duties” of her citizens, whatever those are, and which are yet again defined by the rulers, are the same. The lyrics of Nida Fazil, express this irony sensitively in the following video song by Jagjit Sigh (click here to see).
“After 63 years of Independence, around 400 million unorganised workers struggle to survive without any tangible right, though they substantially contribute to the national income. No employment regulation, no pension, no maternity benefits, no accident compensation, no provision to get even the minimum wages or health benefits. Instead, crumbs of social assistance schemes are thrown at them by the state as charity.
Ye Kaisi Aazadi Hai? asks Jagjit Singh, joining the campaigners of Social Security Now, a network of trade unions, civil society organisations, people’s movements and concerned individuals fighting for securing Social Security Rights for the countless, voiceless unorganised workers. This is your song. Please share it with all the concerned citizens”.