Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Commies and cranberries

Living a sheltered life, I had to learn from the New York Times about an apparently widespread movement that has been working to recast Thanksgiving as a lesson in the evils of socialism and a celebration of the wonders of free enterprise.

According to the ever-reliable Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and various tea party websites, the original English settlers practiced a kind of collectivism is which all worked the land together and shared the proceeds; this led to bickering, thievery, idleness, and famine as the settlers refused to toil when they could not each reap the benefits of their own work. Only when they abandoned such dangerous socialist ideas and divvied up the land into individual privately-owned parcels did they at last enjoy a bountiful harvest . . . which is what we are actually celebrating at Thanksgiving. (Of course, no right-wing historical revisionism is complete without a conspiracy theory and a sense of victimization at the hands of the liberal elite: so it turns out that this "real reason for Thanksgiving" was "deleted from the official story," according to one widely circulated retelling that has appeared on tea party blogs.)

Actually, the first English colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia did work together, but this was neither the cause of their misfortune nor a reflection of any utopian, much less collectivist, spirit: the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.

The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.

Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as "Gentleman," which was defined at the time as, "Whosoever can live without manual labor." John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: "When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have." Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, "One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England."

The "report in England" had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme, and it was good old capitalist avarice, not socialist idealism, that propelled most of these "Gallants" to the New World. Poems, plays, books, sermons preached from pulpits in London all painted America as a literal "Paradise" where the natives cooked in pots and pans of solid gold, plucked emeralds and rubies off the ground, and

Where Nature hath in store
Fowle, Venison, and Fish,
  And the Fruitfull'st Soyle
  Without your Toyle,
Three Harvests more,
All greater than you Wish
So here's an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:

A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren't simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.