Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tracy McKenzie "Flips the Bird" on Rush Limbaugh

Over at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz of Asbury University reviews Tracy McKenzie's The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History.  In the process, he shows how McKenzie's book offers a more accurate picture of the so-called "first Thanksgiving" than the one offered by conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh in his new book Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. (McKenzie addresses these differences here). Apparently Rush believes that capitalism helped save the Pilgrims from the New England wilderness.

Here is a taste of Swartz's review:

  • Pilgrims were not free-market democrats. It’s anachronistic to understand the English Pilgrims as free-thinking patriots 150 years before the founding of the nation. McKenzie points out that a democratic ethos of “the people” ruling was still a good two centuries away. Nor were they proponents of modern forms of free enterprise—or of socialism, for that matter.
  • Historians can’t draw a straight line between the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the contemporary holiday. For 220 years, nobody even remembered the first Thanksgiving. (Historical records only give us the barest of sketches: “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted”). It was a holiday, but it wasn’t linked to the Pilgrims until the mid-19th century. The Bible Belt, in fact, despised Thanksgiving because of sectional rivalry. It took the growing popularity of football in the 1870s and 1880s, when the first league held its championship game on Thanksgiving Day, to accelerate the holiday’s popularity. Thanksgiving, McKenzie writes, became “a domestic observance for which church attendance was optional but a plump turkey was not.” The pious “memories” of the typical evangelical are less accurate than a 1908 Budweiser ad in the Chicago Daily Tribune that read, “How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser. How they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.”
  • And perhaps most shocking to our holiday sensibilities, the first Thanksgiving almost certainly featured more eel than turkey. If they ate any birds at all, they were probably geese. There were no sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, or pumpkin pie. If you really want to be historically authentic, eat some turnips and eel this Thanksgiving. McKenzie also points out that the quaint image of Pilgrims as broad-shouldered pioneers wearing shiny buckles, black suits, and white collars has been “conjured out of thin air.” The Pilgrims probably looked more like junior high schoolers: five feet, six inches and about 130 pounds and clothed in an exuberant array of reds, blues, greens, and yellows.
This whole discussion reminds me of the opening section of chapter 3 of my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (Of course it does!):

The historian David Lowenthal tells the story of a Midwestern man's visit to Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that interprets the earliest days of the seventeenth-century settlement of New England.  Lowenthal witnessed this man--this "booster of individualism and free enterprise"--have an interesting encounter with the actor playing William Bradford, the governoro of Plymouth Colony.  Lowenthall writes, 

"Like many Americans, this visitor grew up in the faith that the Pilgrim Fathers were true begetters of his own values.  Now he was finding this prototype Father's views diametrically opposed to his own.  Bradford was a Calvinist predestinrarian, a believer in community to whom secular capitalist enterprise was blasphemous, selfish individualism anathema.  Seething with indignation, the visitor could not just dismiss pious Bradford as a crank or a Communist...For the first time in his life, this visitor confronted a world view fundamentally at odds with his own and had to engage with it as an idea."

Indeed, William Bradford lived in a world that was quite difference from the world of this Midwestern visitor or, for that matter, anyone born and raised in the modern United States.  This man learned an important lesson about trying to superimpose his system of belief on the past.  As Lowenthal, echoing the late novelist L.P. Hartley, reminds us, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."