Back when I was in elementary school, the recent American holiday, Thanksgiving, was a whole lot simpler.
In those days, in the 60’s, American school kids dressed up in paper hats – black “construction” paper taped in a cylinder with a yellow paper buckle on the front for the Pilgrims, and paper crowns with a dozen or so colored paper feathers taped to it for the Native Americans (who, back then, were called “Indians”). We cut out paper pumpkins and turkeys made by tracing around a widespread hand and decorated the classroom with them. Our textbooks had pictures of happy natives and colonists, smiling earnestly over trestle tables laden with “indian” corn, roasted stuffed turkeys, fresh warm loaves of bread, hot apple pies with tent-like crusts, cranberry sauce, big heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, and baked yellow acorn squash smothered in brown sugar and butter. Apple cider was the drink of choice, filling the tankards of Pilgrims and natives alike. In those days, it was OK to show pictures of weapons to school kids, bell muzzled blunderbusses for the Europeans and bow, arrow, and spear for the red skinned folks. We made maps of Plymouth Colony, which I pictured as being near a beach and a big black rock – you know, the place where Christopher Columbus landed … or something. It was all a little confusing and the details weren’t particularly clear. All we knew was that we would get four days off from school and end up somewhere with lots of noisy cousins and old people who smelled of tobacco products and eggnog. There would be exotic food like Mandarin orange Jell-O mold and black olives. And, of course, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in some magical place called Oz or New York or something. And, of course, Thanksgiving meant that Christmas was only a month away.
That’s the Thanksgiving image a lot of my generation grew up with. Same with the generations before us.
That image is ingrained in our collective American psyche.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, it’s all bullshit.
Or sort of anyway.
That myth, that image of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, is true only in the broadest of strokes. It’s been embellished more than a bit in the telling, and the embarrassing and depressing parts have been edited out over the four centuries since that feast on the shores of the New World.
There were a number of harvest celebrations that could be labeled “the first Thanksgiving,” a couple of which pre-dated that iconic Pilgrim meal. But it’s that one, that celebration at Plymouth Colony in 1621 that became the symbol of America. Nowadays most Americans would rather believe in an idealized grade school myth instead of the real story. This is unfortunate, because the real story is far more interesting. The myth doesn’t mention that those colonists didn’t actually call themselves Pilgrims, nor did they wear those funny black clothes very often despite the fact that they were were a bunch of religious extremists – and that they weren’t, in point of fact, actually “Americans.” The myth often doesn’t mention just how woefully unprepared they were as colonists. They were products of an old European agricultural society, more isolated than most even in their homeland of England, and later their adopted homeland of The Netherlands, due to their religious beliefs. And in reality, they knew as much about breaking new ground in a new land, establishing a colony whole cloth, as you and I do today - i.e. nothing. They couldn’t Google the new world, instead they depended on incomplete descriptions and third hand accounts from explorers – much of which turned out to be wrong. The first thing they did in the new world was to disturb native gravesites and steal corn stored there, and when they encountered their first live “Indians” they fired upon them. Fearing that they screwed up, both by shooting at the natives and by landing in the wrong place, they returned to the Mayflower and moved on down the coast to what would become Plymouth. Because they’d fooled around, arguing and bickering and generally being disorganized and scared shitless, they didn’t arrive at Plymouth until the end of December, 1620, on the 21st to be precise.
December, in Massachusetts. Not what you could call the best timing.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Massachusetts coast in December, but it’s not exactly the Riviera. I used to live on the New England coast, winters are about as much fun there as they are here in Alaska. Most Americas don’t seem to understand this. Allow me to illustrate, the pictures of that landing often look like this:
But, in reality it looked a lot more like this:
Try to imagine it with the cold gray waters of the Atlantic whipped to a froth by frigid winds. The temperature would have been below freezing with plenty of snow and sleet. The ground was frozen, the forest long barren, the skies dark and stormy. Spring was more than four months away. The coast is some of the roughest water in the world, with some of the most treacherous winter weather – it’s legendary among sailors today, sailors who navigate that coast with the greatest of caution and the best instruments our technology can produce. Four hundred years ago, that dark coastline would have been as forbidding as those terrible Bible passages William Bradford, the Pilgrim leader, was fond of quoting.
Is it winter where you are? Do you live in a far northern clime?
Step outside. Visit the nearest woods, the trees are bare, the ground covered in snow, the animals are in hibernation. See anything to eat? How long do you think you’d survive in that woods, in winter, with only the bare minimum of 17th Century technology at your disposal and no knowledge of the local plants or animals? (Yes, I know, you folks in California are now standing outside in your flipflops staring at the avocado trees and wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Winter? What’s the big deal? Oh, as long as I’m out here, I guess I’ll pick some fresh limes for my Mojito. Never mind, just read on and take my word for it).
For the colonists, there were no prefab shelters. No electric heaters. No polar fleece underwear or Gortex jackets or Thinsulate gloves. There were no thermoses of hot coffee or those instant hand warmers or flashlights at night or even toilet paper (paper was far too expensive and precious to wipe your ass on, and would be until the early part of the 20th Century). The colonists’ clothing wasn’t moisture shedding waterproof synthetics, but sodden lice infested raw wool which couldn’t be washed because there was no hot water and no way to dry the stuff even if they’d had spare duds to wear while waiting. In fact, their clothing and tools were designed for the mild European climate and not the harsh conditions of the New England coast in winter. There were no roads in the unfamiliar virgin wilderness, no food, no familiar plants, and little or no edible wildlife in that winter landscape. Most of what they ate came from their provisions onboard the Mayflower. We’re not talking canned goods here, those were two centuries away. No the colonists’ provision were salted fish, dried and smoked meats, grain mush, and pickled vegetables. The kind of thing you need to drink a lot of water with. But even getting water was difficult, there were no wells and the colonists weren’t going to dig any in that frozen ground, the lakes and rivers were frozen. Water came from snow that first winter, melted over fires, but here’s the kicker: there wasn’t even decent firewood, only the unseasoned green timber and winterfall they could gather with the tools they had – every frozen log cut by primitive saws and split by hand. They were malnourished and dehydrated and freezing and working in conditions that required thousands more calories per day than they were getting. They intended to build a dozen common buildings and nineteen homes. They managed four common buildings and seven houses after four months of backbreaking labor. Inside those tiny buildings, the environment was less than ideal, cold, fetid and damp, no plumbing, no sanitation, dirt floors, crowded and smelling of too much unwashed humanity and their beasts in far too little space. In that environment, relatively minor injuries – and there would have been plenty – became life threatening. Cuts and scrapes and bruises that would have healed quickly among well fed, rested, and healthy people, didn’t heal at all, instead those wounds often became infected and deadly. Their teeth fell out, their gums and noses bled, they became weak and nauseated, their bones ached and their joints flamed with pain, their kidneys began to shut down – all symptoms of pervasive vitamin C deficiency, or what sailors of the time called Scurvy. They weren’t getting fresh fruit and Vitamin C in pill form was still many hundreds of years in the future. Scurvy causes foul flatulence and severe diarrhea – which required frequent trips to the outhouse in subzero temperatures. Scurvy also makes it hard to think, makes it hard to reason and concentrate, and it causes extremely emotional irritation and make it very difficult to get along with others. And, of course, there were other vitamin deficiencies, Vitamin D for example, and germs and bacteria and parasites that those European immune systems had never been exposed to.
Try to imagine the hell inside those cabins.
It didn’t take long for the bodies to start piling up – and in fact, people started dying before the colonists ever left the Mayflower. During that first winter forty-three of the original one hundred and two colonists died. By the time they’d managed to clear a few fields and plant some crops for the next winter, only fifty-three people were left. By the time they got to the harvest there were only four adult women alive. For those of you not good at math, that’s a mortality rate far in excess of present day Somalia.
Now, despite those smiling pictures we were shown as kids, I strongly suspect that the situation affected the colonists’ morale in a powerfully negative manner.
Imagine what it must have been like for those who survived the winter, family dead, the survivors starving, sick, isolated, watching the Mayflower sail away leaving them stranded and alone on the dark shore of a hostile and alien land. One suspects that more than a few of the survivors were damned well wishing they were headed back to England with the ship when she left in April. They’d been in the new world less than half a year, and already more than half of them were dead.
I would hazard to guess that despair was a common emotion, come that spring in 1621.
We’ll come back to that.
Something to note: when Mayflower sailed for England that spring, she was supposed to be carrying the first payment from the colonists to their sponsors. What? Oh, you thought the colonists paid for their trip themselves? You thought those dirt poor farmers raised the enormous amount of cash necessary to hire a ship for a year (two ships actually, the Mayflower and the Speedwell – if you’ve never heard of the Speedwell that’s because it didn’t make the voyage, being a leaking unseaworthy piece of crap by one account or deliberately sabotaged by its crew to avoid the dangerous journey according to others). You thought they bought all those supplies and equipment and a patent of colonization from the King out of their own pockets? You think the church paid for it?
You make me snort my beer through my nose.
The colony was financed by an organization of businessmen called Merchant Adventures, who oddly enough, expected to make a profit on their investment. The colonists were supposed to make payments in furs and hides and metals and other unique things from the New World. Mayflower was supposed to bring that first payment in furs and hides back on that first return to England. Needless to say, she didn’t.
However, during the following summer things started to look up.
The colonists encountered natives on a regular basis and those meetings were reasonably peaceful. Among others, they met a native American named Squanto, who became their friend and advocate among the native peoples. Pretty generous for a guy who should have hated the Europeans. Squanto had been kidnapped by the English explorer Thomas Hunt years before and ended up as a slave to Spanish monks for five years in Europe (remember in grade school when they told you how Squanto went to England so he could learn English and be civilized?). Eventually he returned to New England as a slave in the role of native guide for Captain Robert Georges. The local tribes killed Gorges and his crew after several hostile encounters, and they freed Squanto and took him in. And, in fact, the local natives, the Wampanoag under the leadership of a chief named Massasoit, were quite familiar with European explorers. They’d had numerous encounters prior to the arrival of the colonists, almost all bad. It was remarkable that the weakened colonists weren’t slaughtered outright, led by Squanto himself. Instead, the Wampanoag, despite their apprehension, cautiously befriended the aliens. During the summer they taught the Europeans about maize, corn not being a familiar food crop in Europe at the time, and about other edible local flora and fauna. Corn was significant. It grew well in the climate and short growing season, it required comparatively little effort on the part of the planter, it’s yield was high, it was fit for both man and beast, and most importantly it could be dried and stored easily. With the summer warmth, food, water, shelter, and local alliances, the colonist’s situation began to get better. So did their health. As the mortality rate fell, their spirits improved. As their health and morale improved, so did their productivity. When they gave thanks for a successful, if modest, harvest at the end of that first year their odds of surviving the coming winter had been greatly improved. The event we Americans think of as the first thanksgiving was well documented: the colonist intended a day of prayer and a feast, they invited Massasoit as courtesy, not really expecting him to show up. But show up he did, and he brought about 90 of his men with him. The colonists were leery of so many indian warriors in their midst, about double the number of surviving colonists, and the Wampanoag were just as cautious in the middle of the strange alien settlement. The colonists provided fish and lobster and ducks and a few turkeys, the Wampanoag brought five deer. In Europe, deer were a protected species belonging to the royals, venison probably went a long way towards making the colonists feel friendly towards Massasoit and his men. However, there were no loaves of fresh bread or pies, the colonists had used up all their flour by then – not to mention that no apple trees actually yet grew in North America, so much for the cider as well. Sigh. Instead they drank a thick flat and bitter beer. Mashed potatoes also were not at that first Thanksgiving as Europeans tended to regard the potato plant as poisonous – it is a member of the Deadly Nightshade family after all and back then before centuries of selective breeding, it often was poisonous. There was no cranberry sauce either, and no sugar to sweeten the tart berries anyway. Those wild turkeys would have been lean and tough birds, very unlike the fat domesticated Butterballs you get cleaned, dressed, and conveniently frozen from the supermarket today.
The celebration lasted three days.
Over the next two years, additional supplies and colonists arrived from Europe and the settlement became a going concern. They were able to pay down their debt to Merchant Adventures, despite a number of setbacks. Most of those payments consisted of high quality fur, obtained by the colonists from the Native Americans – they never did find any native gold to send back. Morale improved and there was another big celebration in July of 1623 – which was much closer to what we think of as Thanksgiving here in America, by then there were a couple of pies and fresh bread. Still no potatoes though.
Unfortunately, as the colonists’ situation improved, their relations with the native Americans worsened – until eventually a de facto state of war existed. This situation choked off trade with the natives and the colonists once again fell behind on their payments to Merchant Adventures, which caused them a number of problems with their creditors.
But over time the colony expanded into a permanent settlement, new colonists arrived, industries were established and the population swelled. Eventually, around 1690, the Plymouth Colony was annexed into the much larger Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Historians have made entire careers out of studying just those few decades of our past. Entire courses of study, entire museums, scholarly works, books, and archeological digs have been dedicated to examination of those events. And despite the fact that the real story is both far more, and in some ways far less, heroic than our mythology, we do have a very good understanding of what happened in the early years of Plymouth Colony and the events that led to the first so-called Thanksgiving.
No matter the minor details, one thing is quite certain – without the native Americans, those colonists would most likely have not survived, or at least their odds of survival would have been greatly diminished. Without the native Americans in the early years, it is very likely that Plymouth would have been abandoned like other similar settlements in the new world. If, instead of bringing friendship and venison, Massasoit and his Wampanoag had showed up in that horrible winter of 1621 and slaughtered the colonists, history would tell a very different story. History is often achieved by consensus, it often changes as new facts and interpretations come to light – but the one thing all historians agreed on is that Plymouth Colony owed a debt of gratitude to the Native Americans they encountered in those first terrible years.
Well, according to most historians anyway.
See, according to historical expert, Rush Limbaugh, that story too is no more real than the myth we were told about Thanksgiving as elementary school kids.
According to Limbaugh, the real reason the colonists were in such desperate straits originally was because…wait for it…wait for it… because they were socialists!
Yes, the Pilgrims were socialists.
See they all had agreed to bear the burden of the colony’s debt to Merchant Adventures equally. They all agreed to work toward repayment of that debt as a group, before their own interests – and, folks, nothing says socialism like putting the success and very survival of your lazy parasitic friends and family ahead of your own self. Boy Howdy. We all win, or we all lose – that’s the philosophy of socialists, right there. And once Rush pointed it out, well, you have to wonder how all those historians missed it. Four hundred years we’ve studied this period in our history, and only Rush was smart enough to figure out that it was the curse of socialism what laid the Plymouth Colony low.
Limbaugh was, of course, responding to President Obama’s Thanksgiving address to the nation. He took exception when Obama said:
“This spirit brought together the newly arrived Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, who had been living and thriving around Plymouth for thousands of years.”
Predictably, Rush was outraged:
"So, we were the invaders. The Indians were minding their own business. We were incompetent idiots. We didn't know how to feed ourselves so they came along and showed us how and that's what Thanksgiving is all about."
Well, yes, actually the colonists were invaders. And the Native Americans were minding their own business before the Europeans showed up. And the colonists were actually unprepared for the new world. And the Native Americans did, by the colonists’ own account, show the settlers how to feed themselves. And yes, that is at least partially what Thanksgiving is all about, because you know, you’d have to be a complete and total ass not to thank somebody for helping you out when you’re down on your luck – and in point of fact, that’s the one part of the real story that actually showed through that sanitized elementary school myth even after four hundred years of erasing native Americans from our history. But, I digress.
Quibble: Limbaugh’s use of the word “we.” Nothing shows a greater manufactured outrage than use of the word “we.” We? Are we about to find out that Limbaugh’s ancestor, Rysh Lympballs Standish, was a member of the Plymouth Colony? Somehow I have a difficult time imagining Rush Limbaugh being accepted into the Puritan congregation or the Plymouth Colony, he is the very epitome of the things they were attempting to leave behind. We? We? Hell, the colonists weren’t even Americans, they were Englishmen – America itself wouldn’t exist for another century and a half. We? Where’s the “we?”
There’s a logical fallacy in there somewhere, I just know it.
Another Quibble: Why are the Plymouth colonists “we” and modern day immigrants filthy Mexican invaders? I admit to confusion here, Limbaugh logic makes my brain feel all soggy and hard to light. But, again I digress.
Limbaugh went on to say:
"The true story of Thanksgiving is how socialism failed, the Indians didn't teach us capitalism. We shared our bounty with them… because we first failed as socialists."
Everybody got that?
Rush explains how the original colony went wrong:
"All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community as well. They were going to distribute it equally. Nobody owned anything. They just had a share in it. It was a commune, folks. It was the forerunner to the communes we saw in the '60s and '70s out in California – and it was complete with organic vegetables, by the way.”
"That's right. Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? “
“It didn't work! Surprise, surprise, huh?”
I bet you didn’t see Karl Marx coming when we started talking about Pilgrims, did you? Also, organic vegetables are apparently socialist, who knew?
Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market its own crops and products. And what was the result?
America! America was the result! Yay! Victory for capitalism, down with socialism! Success wasn’t assured through sissy communist cooperation and mutual support (well, except that part were they were “assigned” a plot of land and “permitted” to market their own crops, which come to think of it sounds an awful lot like the private plots on those old Soviet Collective farms. But, again, I digress, as is my tendency), nor through peaceful interaction with the natives (who, of course, were actually stealing our land before “we” even got here, the red skinned bastards), nor was success a product of improving morale and health and diet and the arrival of more colonists and supplies. Oh hell, no. Success came because the colonists threw off the shackles of socialism and embraced good old fashioned conservative Tea Party capitalism.
How do we know that Rush’s version of history is the correct one? Well, like any good historian, Rush supplies us with references:
“[T]he real story of Thanksgiving as written by me in my book, See, I Told You So!"
Yes, that’s correct, Rush Limbaugh’s reference, the proof of his version of history, is … Rush Limbaugh. Rush actually referenced himself. He does that a lot actually. I said it, therefore it must be true. Bitches.
Rush goes on, in his Thanksgiving show, to explain that the real reason people are starving in Afghanistan and Africa is not because of a lack of actual fucking food, but rather a lack of capitalism. The people there don’t work, they’d rather starve, because socialism has ruined their work ethic – just as it did with the Pilgrims.
The problem with the world is not too few resources. The problem with the world is an insufficient distribution of capitalism.
Yes. Insufficient capitalism is the problem in Somalia - if only there were less people there who were hell bent on seeing all treated equally, why everybody would have enough to eat. Runaway liberal warlords in Angola, the Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and down the Cote d’Ivoire, fueled by unbridled socialists in Europe and the United States, hacked off the arms of those who wouldn’t give themselves into slavery, raped their wives, and turned their children into soldiers to support the Blood Diamond trade, oh if only there had been sufficient capitalism such things would never have happened! In lands rich in resources but poor in people, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela, it’s an insufficiency of capitalism that keeps the population in poverty and the socialists in the million dollar mansions with the marble floors and solid gold toilets. Even here in the United States, it’s socialism that keeps millions in poverty and on the verge of hunger – all poor people are socialists, that’s why they’re poor. Quod erat demonstrandum.
It’s so obvious when Rush explains history, isn’t it?
Which, inevitably brings us to the title of this post.
Rush Limbaugh, socialist?
Oh yes. Yes he is. It’s obvious. Just like those conservatives who yell the loudest about the sin of homosexuality, and eventually get outted as repressed gays themselves, Rush Limbaugh bellows at length about the evils of socialism – and yet, in his heart, in the only place that matters, he is a secret socialist.
Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a closeted socialist.
Allow me to demonstrate:
Despite a lack of formal education or experience in the specialty in question, Rush Limbaugh declares himself a historian. An expert in American history. Rush knows what motived those long dead colonists. He can see into their very minds. He has no formal education, certification, or experience in the field of economics, politics, psychology, sociology, government, or even cold weather survival, yet he declares himself an expert in every area. In fact, according to Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh is a true polymath, an expert in nearly every facet of human endeavor. Why, he even provides references.
Rush Limbaugh demands that his version of history be given the same weight, if not more, than those of accredited specialists, experts, and degreed historians.
This mindset is an extension of the Creationist worldview, i.e “who really knows what happened back then?” therefore “my ‘theory’ is just as good as yours,” besides “common sense” and common belief trump actual research and accreditation and validation and correction and decades of experience and expertise every time.
Limbaugh and those of his ilk are the same folks who condemn, florid of face and strident in voice, the socialism of “political correctness” - and yet they are the first to demand equal respect for their unproven and often ridiculous nonsense without any better support than the kind of “references”given by Rush Limbaugh above.
This is type of thinking - that all views must be given equal merit in the eyes of the world, no matter how unsupported or provably false - is the purest expression of socialism.
It is socialism of ideas.
It is socialism of the mind.
Rush Limbaugh is a socialist. Q.E.D.
But wait! As they say, there’s more!
Take socialism far enough, and you end up with communism.
Now, I’m not saying Limbaugh is a communist per se, but there are some alarming signs:
- Hatred of gays? Check. That was pretty big on the old Soviet agenda.
- Incorporation of politics into every single goddamned facet of every goddamned thing – including Thanksgiving? Check. E.g. according to communist doctrine, the Red Army didn’t defeat the Nazis during the battle of Stalingrad because they outnumbered the Germans, or because they were better prepared to survive the Russian winter, or because the Nazis were at the end of a long and broken supply chain – no, the Soviets beat the fascists because they were good communists. Note the similarity to to Rush’s version of history, the colonists were successful because they embraced a particular political philosophy. The lesson of history, according to Rush, is to choose the proper political ideology. Back in my Intelligence Officer days I read a number of very similar screeds in Pravda and Red Star, Rush would have loved those, he could have written them.
- A penchant for changing history to support the current political situation and to edit out those who have fallen out of favor? Check. One suspects that in Rush’s Amerika, Squanto would be photoshopped out of those grade school textbooks, like in the old CCCP when the people who pissed off Stalin were blotted out of official photographs.
- Vilification of ethnic populations deemed savage or of a lesser humanity? Eradication of their language, customs, and contribution to history? Check. One wonders when Rush will begin referring to white Anglo Americans as “Great Americans” … oh, wait. Never mind.
- The tendency to seek ever more money, power, and wealth on the back of the poor, gullible, and deluded? Check.
- The predictable and vitriolic paranoid reaction to anything and everything the American president says? Even something as innocuous as a Holiday greeting? Check.
No, I’m not saying Rush Limbaugh is a communist.