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Happy Thanksgiving, Auntie Besserwisser!

Forget talking politics, eat turkey

Michael Lind
November 24, 2020

American progressive publications have added a new custom to the Thanksgiving holiday in the 21st century by running articles with titles like “15 Facts You Can Use to Refute Your Obnoxious Trump-Loving Republican Uncle in Debate at Thanksgiving Dinner.” But the uncle wearing the red MAGA cap and retailing Fox News talking points is hardly the only divisive figure at the dinner table. Let us not overlook Aunt Besserwisser.

Aunt Besserwisser is the progressive Democrat you see once a year at Thanksgiving. As her nickname suggests, she is a font of unsolicited information, always from the same small number of sources in the middlebrow journalistic echo chamber: NPR, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

“Did you see that article in The New Yorker about Thanksgiving? It’s really all about white supremacy. Squanto’s tribe died from smallpox. And I read in The New York Times that the first Thanksgiving wasn’t really about harmony among the Pilgrims and Native Americans. It was about the Wampanoag trying to get the English as allies against their enemies, the Narragansett. And then I heard on NPR that the New Englanders wiped out most of the tribes in King Phillip’s War. It was horrible. Oh, and they didn’t call themselves Pilgrims, they called themselves Separatists. I read that in The Atlantic.”

That’s very interesting, Aunt Besserwisser. Can you pass the gravy?

Yet the debunkers are right about one thing. Traditional Thanksgiving imagery originated in a project of cultural imperialism—New England cultural imperialism.

When I was in the first grade in 1968 in Austin, Texas, my best friend—a Mexican American—and I, along with the rest of the class, put on enormous Pilgrim hats we had made out of black construction paper. Only later did I learn that this was part of a conscious nation-building project promoted nearly a century earlier by writers for genteel ladies’ magazines and the like in the Northeast. In the same way, legend has it that throughout the French Empire, in French Polynesia and French Indochina, students in classrooms would dutifully recite: “Our ancestors the Gauls ...”

In the Second Republic of the United States, which lasted between Lincoln and Hoover, the intelligentsia of Greater New England sought to rewrite American history as the history of New England and the Midwest writ large. Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607, was expunged from the record, as commercial tobacco plantations did not fit the New Englanders’ narrative. Generations of American schoolchildren, taught from books written by Northeasterners and Midwesterners, have assumed as I did in childhood that the Pilgrims or Separatists or whatever the hell they were called were the first English colonists to set foot on American soil at Plymouth Rock. Having landed at Plymouth Rock and enjoyed takeout delivered to them by deferential Native Americans, the virtuous New Englanders then fought the Battle of Bunker Hill to expel the British, before crushing the Confederacy and moving to the upper Midwest to create an idyllic small-town, middle-class white Protestant heaven.

Can the more complex truth about the first Thanksgiving be repurposed, to serve as a founding national narrative for contemporary America? In 2019 in The New Yorker in “The Invention of Thanksgiving,” an essay that is predictably representative of the middlebrow progressive debunking genre, Philip Deloria writes that “to the west, the Narragansetts—traditional rivals largely untouched by the epidemic—now outnumbered the Wampanoags, and that led to the strengthening of Ousamequin’s alliances with the surviving Massachusett and another nearby group, the Nipmucks.” Ousamequin, the sachem of the Wampanoags, hoped to use his alliance with the English settlers to defeat his enemies, but his plan ultimately backfired with dire results for all of the Native Americans of New England, Deloria tells us: “In the end ... Pumetacom’s head was stuck on a pike ... Displayed for Wampanoag prisoners who were likely soon to be sold to the Caribbean.”

The pitch to the HBO or Showtime producers suggests itself: “It’s like Game of Thrones ... But Thanksgiving.”

I am afraid that Aunt Besserwisser would not approve of recasting the story of Thanksgiving as a sort of tragic Icelandic Viking saga of feuds and military alliances. At previous Thanksgivings, Bessie, as she is known to the family, has praised the 1619 Project of The New York Times, which seeks to replace the myth that America symbolically began in 1620 at Plymouth Rock with an equally fabricated and tendentious myth that America symbolically began in 1619, when the first African Americans were brought in chains to British North America.

In the 1620 myth, all white Southerners were evil but white New Englanders were good. In the 1619 myth, all white Americans are evil, New Englanders included. But the 1619 Project is just a variant of the 1620 project of weaponizing history for partisan or subcultural purposes—it’s a middlebrow 20th-century project. And what could be more puritanical than unmasking the Puritans themselves as hypocrites who failed to live up to their ideals?

All of this is alien to the inclusive spirit of Thanksgiving, which is the least partisan American holiday. Christmas and Easter are sectarian. The Fourth of July is political.

Thanksgiving is apolitical and heathen. Notwithstanding the efforts of generations of Protestant pastors, Thanksgiving and its predecessors in various regions of the United States have always fulfilled the function in the New World of pagan harvest festivals celebrating kinship ties before the darkness and cold of winter.

If you are a neo-Loyalist monarchist who thinks that the American War of Independence was a disaster and that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were traitors who should have been hanged, the Fourth of July can be difficult. And if you are Jewish or Muslim or Druid or atheist, Christmas can be awkward. Because it is and ought to be a holiday about nothing—except for what we actually share as humans—nobody is an outsider on Thanksgiving.

To paraphrase Peter Clemenza: “Leave the Pilgrims, take the turkey.” The caloric intake of Thanksgiving should be high but the political-intellectual-nutritional value should be nonexistent. People who try to politicize America’s nonpartisan, nonsectarian autumn harvest festival are fun-hating killjoys, just like the millenarian theocrats on the Mayflower.

Aunt Besserwisser, could you pass the cranberry sauce, please?

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.