Thanks for what?


WHEN AMERICAN families sat down with friends to feast on the traditional Thanksgiving turkey on Thursday they celebrated as Plymouth’s Pilgrims did first in 1621, colonists and natives together. America has joyfully marked the occasion annually since 1623.

It is more than just the Harvest Festival that inspired it; it is a celebration of America itself and as the Washington Postput it this week, of their good fortune “to be alive and fed and sheltered . . . The proper response . . . is not self-satisfaction but gratitude. Gratitude to whom or what is not as important as the understanding of our inter-dependence and of the necessity of caring for one another”.

But “gratitude to whom” has become a matter of some controversy. Conservative radio jocks and the Tea Party are appropriating the pilgrims, anti-socialist stalwarts, it seems, before socialism itself had been conceived. Thanksgiving is acquiring – in a debate that, admittedly, is passing most people by – a new ideological flavour in much the way reinterpretations of the “true” meaning of the constitution and some of the Founders’ suspect liberalism have already done. What might be called a revisionist 1916 moment.

The pilgrims survived a few bad harvests though they gave thanks for one in 1621 nonetheless. But there was a breakthrough crop in 1623, whose success was attributed in part by William Bradford, governor of the colony for 30 years, to his initiative in replacing their collective farming with family plots. “This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious,” he would write.

Rush Limbaugh repeats the Plymouth story yearly, reading on his radio show from a chapter in his book “ Dead White Guys,or What Your History Books Never Told You” to prove that the settlers suffered because at the outset, their land and their homes “belonged to the community”. And Tea Party blogs have reposted “ The Great Thanksgiving Hoax”from a site dedicated to libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises. It concludes: “Thus the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them”.

Historians dispute such tendentiousness; one suggests the pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism - others that the lean years were no famine or that the pilgrims were simply getting better at farming. But commies they were not.

Forsooth, ’twould all quite put one off one’s turkey . . .