Tag Archive for: Presentism

The Other Thanksgiving Story

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

It really is about being grateful, which is something too few of our spoiled citizens appreciate.  But since the holiday is being weaponized by “woke culture”, there are some other elements of the story to think about.

The short version, the way it is taught today, is that greedy Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Bay.  Half of the Pilgrims died from disease and starvation the first winter. Befriended by kind Indians, they barely survived and gave thanks to the Almighty.  Then, the Pilgrims went on to colonize the natives.  Today, one of the Indian tribes most closely associated with the Pilgrims regrets they gave them help.

Thus like Columbus Day, much of the meaning of Thanksgiving gets lost in the culture wars of today.  It has been turned into a story about the evils of colonizing and European culture, and an elevation of the indigenous to almost mythical levels.

It really is about being grateful, which is something too few of our spoiled citizens appreciate.  But since the holiday is being weaponized by “woke culture”, there are some other elements of the story to think about.

What are the sheer odds of things coming together the way they did?  If not a product of Devine Providence, the story is remarkable by the extremely low odds things could unfold the way they did.

One of the first is being blown off course and landing precisely at a spot where native people had been wiped out by a plague.  If one had to land in cold Massachusetts, they by chance found a good spot.  They found depopulated villages, mass graves, and a Wampanoag society devasted well before the Pilgrims arrived.  They did not seize native land, it was abandoned.

As to the help they received, the story of Squanto is remarkable just for its improbability.  Taken likely by English sailors fishing the region, he was sold into slavery, wound up in Spain, learned European languages, was befriended by religious monks, and remarkably then returned to his people who had been wiped out. He did not die in slavery, did not succumb to European diseases, and was likely one of the only English-speaking natives in the whole region.  And, he showed up just in the nick of time and preferred to live his life among the English until his death.  What are the odds of that?

His introduction was just as improbable.  Another Indian, who had learned some English named Samoset contacted the Pilgrims.  His first words were reported to be “do you have any beer”, a question that can be appreciated today as well.  It was through this colorful introduction that Squanto met the Pilgrims and helped them learn planting procedures.

Then there is the strategic alliance formed between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. 

The Indians of North America had not reached the level of sophistication of their fellow tribesmen in South America.  They did not have the wheel, work metals, a recorded language, or writing.  They were stone age people set on a collision course with a more technologically advanced “alien” civilization.  Wherever that occurred, in Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, or Australia, the outcome would not be good for the natives.

The leader of the Wampanoag, Massasoit, knew his plague-weakened tribe was in serious trouble.  But the threat was not the Pilgrims. An aggressive and more powerful tribe, the Narragansetts, would likely subjugate his people.  It was not uncommon among North American tribes to kill and torture their rivals, seize their land, enslave their women and children, and on occasion, eat them.

Lost by most is the diplomatic maneuvering that occurred.  Massasoit sought out the Pilgrims for a military alliance against another tribe.  The Pilgrims entered into a peace treaty with them.  The treaty provisions basically said that none of Massasoit’s men would harm the Pilgrims, and if they did, they would be sent to the Pilgrims for punishment and if anyone went to war with Massasoit, the Pilgrims and their flintlocks would come to their aid.  Does that sound like colonizing to you?

To be sure, unjust things to native Americans occurred later, but why blame the Pilgrims?

Further, several years later, Massasoit became gravely ill and went blind.  The Pilgrims were sent out to visit him and were told he was dead.

But, they found Massasoit alive but near death, and one Edward Winslow gave him medicine, scraped his throat, and gave him chicken soup (no kidding). The chief regained his eyesight, began to eat once again, and recovered.  

Grateful for the care, Massasoit revealed a plot by other Indians to wipe out the Pilgrims.  Armed with this vital intelligence, Miles Standish, with the help of Massasoit’s men, defeated the plot before it could materialize.  Massasoit remained a friend of the Pilgrims until his death. Does that sound like colonizing to you?

What are the odds that the primitive medicine practiced by the Pilgrims could work such miracles on Massasoit, and that he in turn would reveal a plot by other Indians to destroy the Pilgrims?

Isn’t it interesting that those today who hate the idea of migrants from Europe landing in North America are the ones in favor of migrants displacing the people in Texas and Arizona?

And as to the Indian leaders today who take to the Washington Post to voice their regrets about helping the Pilgrims, both the Post and the Indian leaders are guilty of “presentism”, or view all historical events through the prism of today’s woke ideology.

Both sides cooperated with each other for good reason.  They needed each other for survival. It might not be too much to say that descendants today of the Wampanoag might not be around to criticize the Pilgrims were it not for the alliance formed between Massasoit and the Europeans.

Finally, in the diary of William Bradford, we learn about another challenge the Pilgrims beat.  This is one of their own makings.  It was socialism.

At first, all production was to be shared, regardless of one’s effort.  Individuals farmed collective land.  As a result, production dropped and starvation stalked the land.  There was no incentive to work.  Basically, it was “universal basic income”. Bradford reversed course, allowing private plots and making individuals responsible for themselves.  The Pilgrims were not only saved by Squanto, but by capitalism.

So there is a lot of interesting history in the back story to Thanksgiving to reflect upon if you can get through the distortions so frequently pedaled today.  Even the nature of history itself is a subject of the Thanksgiving experience.  It is said that history is written by the victors.  Today, it is written by the victors on behalf of the losers. 

The Pilgrims put much of their history down in writing.  The natives used oral history.  The quality of the two is not equivalent.  It is hard enough to get the facts straight and interpreted fairly from original written documents. But oral history has no objective tether to the facts.  Just listening to the yarns of relatives should prove that to you.  Ever notice how events you were party to get changed over the years, embellished sometimes beyond recognition?

Try to have an accurate depiction of events passed on down from 400 years ago.  It is just not possible.  This truth is likely painful to those that revere “oral history.”

No, the Pilgrims were not perfect, but they were not devils either.  The treaty with the Wampanoag, initiated by Massasoit is evidence of that, as was their medical care of him.

It is not a good thing for a nation to have every element of its history turned into an evil crime.  A strong civilization should be able to critique itself, but constant exaggeration and selective negative history can undermine belief in one’s country and civilization.  Why defend it, if that is the case?

A nation’s history is not solely defined by its shortcomings, nor is its destiny. The Pilgrims conducted themselves pretty well given the time in which they lived.

Those who want to undermine America use distortions of history for their own purposes.

Thanksgiving is actually a remarkable and improbable story.  It either was divine intervention or one of the most implausible sets of circumstances one can imagine.

Those actually participating in the events were religious and saw their salvation in religious terms.  Their survival hung on a miraculous set of events.

Today, we can look back at the development of a wonderful country that has its warts to be sure, but still remains a beacon to those who want to find a better life.

We have not been wiped out by war, disease, socialism, or starvation.  Lots of people have had that fate.  We haven’t.  Be thankful for that.

 

Against Presentism

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes

Drawing a distinction between moral judgment and empathetic analysis

 

In the study of history, presentism is an interpretation of the past through a prism of contemporary values. Recently, historian James Sweet, President of the American Historical Association, created a major kerfuffle for daring to question presentism in the AHA Journal.  Sweet’s rebuke was mild but ultimately concluded that “Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.” Threatened with cancellation, he wrote a groveling pseudo-retraction, but Sweet is absolutely correct in his initial conclusion.  

Presentism has no place in history classrooms. But it is widespread. 

Progressive high school history teachers employ a species of presentism via a self-proclaimed social justice curriculum  to advance causes like “equity,” “climate justice,” and “racial justice.”  Such teachers abandon history in favor of what amounts to a left-leaning political agenda.  Gaslighting historical actors against a backdrop of contemporary mores encourages teenagers to abandon nuance for ersatz moral superiority.  Complex ideas, interactions, and people are reduced to caricatures in service of a progressive narrative. Thus, Thomas Jefferson did nothing beyond abusing slaves, and slavery itself was a uniquely European construct.

As an academic subject, ethical philosophy is distinct from history. History limits itself — not what should happen, but what did happen and why.  The widespread use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History (a poorly sourced Marxist history of the US) in American high schools speaks to the fact that progressive teachers too often intentionally blur that distinction. 

There may well be moral absolutes that transcend time and place, and history may have some applicability in a broad ethical debate. But, as an academic discipline, history (and history teachers) lack the tools and methodology to establish what those standards might be. History is a means of discovering the truth of that which emerged in and belongs to, the past. We do violence to history when we shove that truth aside in favor of presentism. Teachers do a gross disservice to their students when they substitute their own socio-political agenda as inescapable “lessons” of “history.”

Historical actors functioned in their present (our past) from specific (theoretically discoverable) motivations, concerns, and assumptions. The historian’s primary task is to understand people and events in contextas they existed within the constraints imposed by time and place. Such understanding demands empathy.

An objective study of history can develop the capacity to understand the ideation and experience of another despite never sharing similar experiences or necessarily agreeing with their ideas or actions.     

Virtually any historical figure can be lifted out of time and found wanting when held to a moral system they were neither aware of nor adhered to. In fact, because condemnation, under those circumstances, is a foregone conclusion the exercise of historical presentism is intellectually vapid. It serves no purpose beyond confusing personal bias with ineluctable truth and reaffirming a misplaced sense of moral superiority.

Moralists debate the existence of universal ethical standards. That is an important debate we are all well-advised to engage in. But history teachers do well to draw a bright-line distinction between moral judgment and empathetic analysis in the classroom.

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This article was published by Chalkboard Review and is reproduced with permission.