For going on a century, the international Left has been seeking to discredit and undermine the United States. One front in this war comprises attacks on American history, monuments, and the traditional holidays that recognize and celebrate this country’s exceptional institutions, especially political and economic freedom, and the unalienable rights of individuals.
Having failed serially and ruined every country it has governed, the Left has a deep hatred for the nation and principles that achieved what socialism could only promise. Defending our national traditions, then, is not about time off from work, shopping, overeating, and binging on football, but about our being grateful for our freedom, and the importance of the history of our nation’s beginning.
Given the Left’s long animus, there’s no surprise in a story about several American universities gathering at an event that asks whether Americans should “reconsider” and “reevaluate” Thanksgiving. According to the event’s advertising,
Starting in 1970, many Americans, led by Indigenous protesters, believed that Thanksgiving should be rededicated as a National Day of Mourning to reflect the centuries-long displacement and persecution of Native Americans. The recent shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day reflects a changing national mood. . . . “Should Americans reconsider Thanksgiving when wrestling with our country’s complicated past?”
Such thinking reflects leftist revisionist history of the Howard Zinn and 1619 Project ilk, which in fact doesn’t correct the alleged partial and partisan historical record of America’s birth and scrub away its self-justifying myths, but rather simply replaces that history with an even more egregiously mythic one that violates every historiographical canon, especially the requirement that we avoid presentism––judging the past by the ideologically tainted standards of today.
As a result, our ancestors are dragged to the bar of judgment to be condemned by what G.K. Chesterton called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” But those historically challenged revisionists are embarrassingly ignorant of history and, more important, its tragic nature.
Rather than a tragic confrontation of American Indians with a more advanced European civilization seeking resources and territory––the foundational dynamic of global history––American Indians are depicted as idealized Noble Savages, a representation that distorts and loses sight of their complex humanity and all-too-human penchant for violence. It also dehumanizes them into simplistic weapons for discrediting and slandering their political enemies and patriotism.
But historically, American Indians behaved as most tribal peoples––and many civilized ones–– have for millennia. Like the ancient Gauls, the Celts, the Saxons, the Germans, and other European tribes, they prized warrior prowess and honor, and were cruel to their enemies, subjecting them to excruciating tortures. Land went to those who could take it from another tribe, and possession was the only title. At the Fort Laramie peace conference in 1851, the Oglala Sioux chief Black Hawk used this eternal principle to explain his tribes’ right to the lands south of the Platte River: “These lands once belonged to the Kiowas and the Crows, but we whipped those nations out of them and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians.” The sin of the white man was the hypocrisy of pretending that they were buying the land or acquiring it through treaties, both alien to tribal peoples everywhere.
Similarly, the American Indians were not natural ecologists, “living lightly on the land,” and worshipping a benevolent Mother Earth, one of our most cherished myths, and a useful stick which Leftists use to beat capitalism and industrialization. In fact, American Indians’ relationship to nature and its supernatural powers was practical. As historian Fergus Bordewich writes, like all human beings American Indians “used the means at their command to bend nature to their use, and within the limits of their technology, they were no less inherently exploitative of it.”
Finally, that the American Indians’ encounter with the Europeans was a disaster, though most of the killing was done by infectious diseases new to them, is a truism. But such encounters between cultures are always disastrous if one has superior weapons and other technologies. History is the tragic chronicle of vast movements of people and the violent displacement of those in possession of resources coveted by all human beings: Romans in Gaul, the Arabs in North Africa and Spain, the Huns, the Mongols, the Vikings, the Goths, the Turks, the Bantu, the Khmer, the Tonkinese––all wrought devastation on the peoples they invaded and whose lands and resources they plundered.
Such violence may be a sad commentary on human nature, but the similar clash between Europeans and the indigenes of the New World is historically exceptional only in its sequel: the eventual creation of the United States and its unprecedented combination of global military power with a political order that privileges unalienable individual rights, political freedom, rule by law, and the accountability of leaders to the citizens they serve.
Of course, the revisionists will shout about the cost in blood exacted from American Indians and African slaves. Their juvenile utopianism will complain about the amount of time that had to pass before these stains on our history were acknowledged. But that just means the people who created the United States were human, possessing the same destructive passions and impulses, their violence and cruelty typical of all humanity.
But there is something historically unusual about the Europeans’ invasion of the New World. In addition to the cruelty and violence universal to mankind, there was something else: the consciousness that they were being cruel and savage despite their Christian faith and more advanced civilization. There is no precedent in the New World, or in tribal Northern Europe, for this self-critical moral awareness demonstrated in 1511 by the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos in his indictment of his fellow Spaniards: “You are in mortal sin and live and die in it because of the cruelty and tyranny that you use against these innocent peoples . . . . Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves?”
Or where in ancient Gaul or Aztec Tenochtitlan existed such self-criticism as this, from Pedro de Cieza de León, who wrote, “It is no small sorrow to reflect that we Christians have destroyed so many kingdoms. For wherever Christians have passed, conquering and discovering, it seems as though a fire has gone, consuming everything.” The crimes of America’s founders are those of humanity everywhere. But their virtues––critical self-awareness, freedom, and unalienable rights–– are the province of the West alone, from which they have spread to the whole world.
Those sins have been documented, exposed, exaggerated, and exploited by the Left for a long time. But on Thanksgiving Day, we should remember the virtues of our ancestors, and be grateful for them, for they are the reason we can live free.