On Rush Limbaugh, the American Empire, and Thanksgiving

by Jay Stevens 

So there I was, having a nice, quiet holiday, completely unaware that my conservative fans were lacing my comment threads with their usual reality-challenged revisionist interpretation of history, as if somehow everything good and American that has come before leads directly to President Bush and his cadre of loyalists.

I’m talking Thanksgiving. In my T-Day open thread, I got the following comment from Big Swede about the real meaning behind Thanksgiving: American capitalism!

I’m thankful that at this time in the year back in the early 1600’s a small group of 50 pilgrims stood with their head bowed in prayer over a bounteous feast. A year before they had been twice as many but those had succumbed to sickness, exposure and starvation. But I more thankful that Gov. Bradford had the foresight to see that the “commune” style of government was failing and to be successful and reward individual effort settlers were given a plots of land to improve themselves. With its biblical roots thus began capitalism and the success that is America.

Imagine how little surprised I was to find that this was a slimmed-down version of Rush Limbaugh’s retelling of the Pilgrim story. (Or, as he calls it, “the Real Story of Thanksgiving.”)

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? What Bradford and his community found was that the most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation! But while most of the rest of the world has been experimenting with socialism for well over a hundred years – trying to refine it, perfect it, and re-invent it – the Pilgrims decided early on to scrap it permanently. What Bradford wrote about this social experiment should be in every schoolchild’s history lesson. If it were, we might prevent much needless suffering in the future.[snip]

They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property. 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? ‘This had very good success,’ wrote Bradford, ‘for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.’ Bradford doesn’t sound like much of a…” I wrote “Clintonite” then. He doesn’t sound much like a liberal Democrat, “does he? Is it possible that supply-side economics could have existed before the 1980s?

(Big Swede, it’s usually good form to cite the source you “borrow” from in these things.)

By this same logic, then, the lesson of Jamestown and the Virginia colony was that indentured servitude and slavery works and should be hailed today.

This view of Thanksgiving exploits the holiday for partisan politics, of course, where the original event was a harbinger of Reaganite and Bushian ideology of unfettered corporatism. It’s the story, not of giving thanks to God or to the ether or a simple moment to meditate on your fortune and family, it’s an ueber-patriotic call to conservative arms and an American Capitalist Empire!


There are only two accounts of the original Thanksgiving, and neither of them mentions using the holiday to contemplate the benefits of capitalism, the possibility of an American Empire, or any such rot. Mostly it was about eating and being grateful to God for having food to eat.

Edward Winslow:

Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, 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, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

(No condemnation of those unrepentant socialists, the Indians.)

Dave Neiwert also reminds us that the Pilgrims were neither the first European settlers or the first North American colonists and thinks the message we should take from Thanksgiving shouldn’t be that of “American destiny” (let alone unfettered corporatism):

When you look at the full scope of North American history, the image of Thanksgiving as a holiday of U.S. exceptionalism becomes much harder to sustain. The Pilgrims were not the first European settlers, as many Americans believe. (Cortez’s Spanish troops were.) They weren’t even the first English settlers (several English colonies had been doing very well in Canada for decades). Plymouth was not the first European city in the New World (Cuernavaca would have a decent claim there); nor even in America (as anyone from either St. Augustine or Santa Fe will tell you). And theirs was far from the first Thanksgiving. In truth, they were latecomers to a long-standing party that had already become a New World tradition from Montreal to Mexico City.Living in Canada has given me a bigger view of Thanksgiving. It’s not a holiday celebrating American uniqueness and destiny, but rather one that connects us in history to all the people of this continent — those who came on the boats from Spain, then France, then England to brave a world they could not imagine; those who met the boats and lost the world as they knew it; those who have come in the centuries since from every corner of the planet; and those who share the continent with America now, and are as bound to her fate as surely as we are bound to the brothers and sisters we’re feasting with today.

And the Notorious Mark T reminds us that the American colonists’ in New England (and elsewhere) owed their success not to character, religion, or capitalism, but to disease. If anything, I thnk that’s the message we should take away from the Pilgrims’ successful experiment in New England, that most of our fortunes as Americans – and even being Americans – is purely accidental. We should be grateful to God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or to random chance that it’s all worked out the way it has and that we lucked into our lives, our family, and even our country.

This isn’t a holiday for arrogance, it’s a time for humility. The original Pilgrims died at an astounding rate. They were cut off from all of their friends, family, and tradition in a hostile environment surrounded by an alien people. Their crops were inconsistent, disease and death were rampant. The survivors knew how tenuous their hold to life was. We should do the same and find inspiration from that feeling, not anger or fear or aggression.

  1. TMM

    “..we lucked into our lives, our family, and even our country.”

    Was there some luck involved? Yes, as there is in any endeavor in life. But more important to luck, in my view, is effort. Forgetting the efforts our parents, grandparents, teachers, leaders, inventors, and yes, forefathers/mothers made to create the nation and world we live in today for me is a serious affront to the sacrifices all of those and others have made. I’m trying not to be too unkind here, this is just a topic that really gets my dander up. I’m not going to defend or discount the mistakes our ancestors have made-there have been many. But to assign to luck the efforts those ancestors have done which helped get us where we are today is an error in the extreme.

  2. Big Swede

    I guess you would have been more impressed if I had used your Thanksgiving thread to call for the immediate jailing of conservative talk show hosts, launch full investigations into Haliburton, impeaching George Bush or inditing CONrad Burns. I’m sure those all were original thoughts never mentioned before. I am thankful however, that you showed Rush’s link to your readers, something that they other left blogs would never do.

  3. Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers!

    All good ideas, swede, EXCEPT for the jailing of rightwing blowhards! The only one I can think of offhand that should be in jail for drug violations is the fat boy, Blimpaugh. The others have really not violated any laws that I’m aware of. For you see, swede, when the Rethuglies did away with the fairness doctrine, and the radio guys discovered how to screen all their calls, they’ve got it made! They are violating no laws, and are not being challenged! Kinda the best scenario possible for uneducated, ingnorant blowhardy buffoons!

  4. Forgetting the efforts our parents, grandparents, teachers, leaders, inventors, and yes, forefathers/mothers made to create the nation and world we live in today for me is a serious affront to the sacrifices all of those and others have made.

    You could have been born in Liberia, TMM. That you’re an American is an accident of birth, no more, no less.

    But what’s the undercurrent of this accusation? That America is the natural result of hard labor and genius? Surely it is, but there’s plenty of hard work and genius in other places, too. I’d argue that the pre-eminence of the United States has less to do with the natural superiority of our forefathers and ourselves than its ecological similarity to Europe and its plethora of natural resources. It’s a numbers game, really. To assume we’re superior because we’re us is a sure way towards self-destruction. In self awareness and humility lies greatness if not in might, then in spirit.

  5. Larry – I am of the opinion that you should have your own blog. I’m not being sarcastic or anything – you have attitudes that shine through and a wide range of ideas on many subjects, and you definitely have your own style. If you had a blog, I’d visit it every day. You’d come to despise me.

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