Thoughts & Views: The real lesson of Thanksgiving

Well, another Thanksgiving has passed and another U.S.A.-made myth has been celebrated about how the Pilgrims made nice with the Native Americans, and with their help, learned how to plant corn and other crops and thereby got through the first winter in the New World.

I don’t know what the current school books say about that early 17th century adventure – nor do I know how the new PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers) test measures American students’ knowledge of the event.

But I believe it’s safe to say that the sanitized, spoon-fed version of the Puritans’ voyage to America is nothing more than a dressed-up fairy tale of how the English colonists actually behaved.

An exploration of, for example, Howard Zinn’s classic study, “A People’s History of the United States,” first published in 1980, reminds us that, “When the Pilgrims came to New England … [t[he governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, created the excuse to take Indian land by declaring the area legally a ‘vacuum.’

“The Indians, he said, had not ‘subdued’ the land, and therefore had only a ‘natural’ right to it, but not a ‘civil’ right. [And a] ‘natural’ right did not have legal standing.”

They also used the Bible (Psalms and Romans) to justify their belief that they had a right to take the land from “heathens” who, if those creatures resisted, must expect to “receive to themselves damnation.”

And so, the new Americans set out to destroy the Indian tribe of New England, the Pequots, by burning their wigwams, destroying their crops and killing as many as they could, Zinn notes.

Naturally, the Indians tried to defend themselves – after all, they were the legitimate residents – but as the years advanced and the numbers of marauders from Europe increased, the odds were against them.

We know how things turned out: Like other oppressed peoples, they were subjected to genocide and the remnants of once proud tribal nations were forced onto federal reservations and miserable living conditions.

What lessons can we apply from the “Plymouth Adventure”?

It seems that, having taken a cue from the once imperialist Brits who sought to extend their dominion by seizing other distant lands and exploiting their resources over centuries, the U.S. has sought to surpass its motherland by becoming the pre-eminent world power.

To that end, we don’t hesitate to dictate terms to other countries in return for financial or military support.

We send our Navy SEAL teams, CIA contractors and drones on covert missions to kill people whom we and our allies wish out of the way, no matter the cost (casualties/ deaths) to the local population. Frequently, to justify those missions, we label those targets as part of a blanket, world-wide terrorist organization.

But, like the Puritans before us, we engage in this violence on the assumption that we are always in the right because the people overseas cannot possibly run their affairs without our help. And it’s only fair that if we’re taking the risks, we should get something back for our trouble, whether that’s “strategic security in the region” or cheaper oil from OPEC, or some corporate cut of the action.

It could be that – by supporting puppet regimes for so long or by penalizing countries that trade with Communist Cuba — we have contributed to the circumstances that have triggered insurgencies which we now call “terrorist” actions.

Of course that doesn’t excuse the kidnappings and slaughter of civilians – mostly women – in northern Nigeria by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram or the beheadings of journalists in the Middle East or the killing of anti-polio health care aides in Pakistan by Islamic extremists.

Maybe other countries, as suggested by recently departed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, do look to the U.S. to take the lead in remedying horrific situations around the globe – and we have generously contributed to worldwide efforts to relieve hunger – notably, for ever-increasing Syrian war-torn refugees.

But we need to rethink our policies – foreign and domestic – in how we approach political issues.

So when desperate folk from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere leave their native lands to try and make a better life for themselves and their families in America, we should, as Emma Lazarus urged, open that “golden door” a bit wider for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Here is the great lesson to be learned from the Pilgrims’ insular vision: The path to opportunity should be open to all, for diversity is what can make us great again.

– Ron Leir 

The Observer Staff