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I spent a recent weekend in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plymouth, to remind you, is the place where American folklore, if not necessarily American history, got its first start. It is the location where a small group of English exiles arrived in 1620 seeking freedom for their form of Christian religion. They were almost totally inept when it came to living in the new land, and many of them perished in the cold and hunger of that first long hard winter. But the new colony was rescued from oblivion by some kindhearted members of the Wampanoags who brought them gifts of food and then taught them how to grow the local crops, corn, beans and squashes. Every American school child out of kindergarten can recite back their teacher’s parable of Thanksgiving in which the newcomers and the local people sat down in cheerful amity to share an abundant harvest meal together.
Plymouth is full of Pilgrim memorabilia and some Pilgrim kitsch. There are statues of the Pilgrim leaders, for whom the hotels and motor inns are named today, in their dark capes and peaked hats along the street near the waterfront. There is the famous Plymouth Rock, surrounded by a marble colonnade, where the Pilgrims supposedly first stepped ashore long ago. Among other attractions for today’s visitors, there is the inevitable Pilgrim Wax Museum and there is the “Mayflower II”, a replica of the Pilgrims’ ship, floating in the harbor and, in the summertime, taking aboard crowds of tourists. No doubt one of the odder places in this town is at an inn named for an early Pilgrim governor. This inn advertizes a Pilgrim-themed recreation room with a hot tub that surmounts a plastic-molded Plymouth Rock and the wooden bow of Mayfloweresque ship housing a water slide and spouting warm bilge water into the swimming pool. It must truly be seen to be believed.
On a hill overlooking the whole downtown waterfront scene is a statue of Massasoit, the friendly Wampanoag chief, with his hand raised high in greeting. Yet, try as one might, there is nothing to be found in Plymouth’s downtown public spaces that acknowledges what subsequently happened to the Wampanoags, or other Indians, with the “first settlement” of America. For all their essential early help, the Wampanoags by the later seventeenth century had gotten in the way of the white newcomers’ avid land hunger. When Indians around New England united to resist further losses of their territory and rose up in 1675 in what the Pilgrims and Puritans called “King Philip’s War” — “King Philip” was the current Wampanoag leader, Metacom – hundreds of Indian men, women and children alike were slaughtered without mercy or were cruelly allowed to starve to death or were rounded up and shipped off into slavery. This was justified in the whites’ minds by their conviction that they were a chosen people of God and that the Indians were uncivilized heathen.
How many school children are taught about these facts, too? Very few. Plymouth is a standing metaphor for how the inconvenient facts are so often elided in the retelling of American history in favor of comforting, simpleminded folk tales. A couple of year ago, a group of American Indians and their supporters from around New England assembled in Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day and tried to march through the town to remind the tourists and the townies about the real history of American genocide against the original inhabitants. Tellingly, they were beset before they could go very far by the local constabulary; some of them were beaten and then arrested for trying to be heard with their unwanted story amidst the town’s other self-congratulatory events. No doubt, as with other dissidents, the Indian marchers were labeled, without any irony, as “un-American”.
Today Plymouth, like many other parts of the U.S. in the aftermath of 911, is replete with displays of flags and other overt signs of patriotism, including all those expensive gas-guzzling SUV’s sporting their “United We Stand” and “Proud to be an American” stickers. Yet, there seems not much of a clue among most persons in Plymouth, or elsewhere, about why somebody somewhere might have gotten so very angry as to have perpetrated such an atrocity against the United States. Little wonder that this might be the case when the nation’s history, if it is taught much at all, is put over in such a fashion, as at Plymouth, as a form of indoctrination in a sort of national mythology in which Americans are a special breed with God on their side who can basically do no wrong.
Yes, there is much to be proud of and celebrate in American history. In particular, there are all the inspiring experiences and stories of the various groups of immigrants coming to these shores, one after another, and continuing right up to the present day. Like the Pilgrims, many of them struggled so very hard to overcome adversities and to better themselves and their descendants. There are also all the great stories of the often-persecuted and imprisoned American dissidents, free-thinkers and activists, of one sort or another, from the seventeenth century’s Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams to the Dave Dellingers and Mumia Abu-Jamals of today, who have had the courage to challenge the prevailing power-structures and conventional ways of thinking.
When I teach American history, I delight in telling these kinds of stories — although it needs to be pointed out that these kind of stories do not constitute some kind of American exceptionalism that sets the U.S. apart from, and above, other peoples. Such stories can be located throughout the histories of peoples all over our complex and lovely Planet Earth.
However, at the same time, interwoven with this positive history in ways that are often very hard to take apart from it and to treat as separate entities, there exists in American history an equally long, terribly shameful history of exploitation, racism and violence directed against other peoples both inside and outside the U.S. I cannot be proud of these things. I cannot forget that these things have taken place and help to whitewash the history of this country. Nor can I close my eyes to the fact that similar, indeed often uncannily similar, things continue to be happening today. The wrongful history that also began back in the seventeenth century has not come to an end.
Much as it did with the Indians and enslaved Africans in earlier centuries on this continent, the U.S. is exploiting the labors and resources from people all around the world, most notably as a pertinent background to the present conflict, the oil wealth in the Middle East. Nowadays, this foreign imperialism helps to explain our relative prosperity in the U.S. — and all those SUV’s on the highways — as much or more than any hard, diligent work performed by the descendants of the Pilgrims or of the others seeking freedom and a better life who came and settled here next.
The U.S. is supporting Israel. Very much in the mold of our own earlier history, this is another settler colony which, believing itself entitled by God, is stealing land from the native inhabitants, the Palestinians, and is driving those who are left onto impoverished apartheid-style reservations.
Repression and torture techniques are taught at places like the infamous School of the Americas. Billions of our tax dollars are being spent on weapons systems to intimidate and put down Third World rebel groups and nationalistic leaders who might want to retain for their own populations some fairer proportion of what ought to be humanity’s common bounty of nature and to enjoy some greater control over their own national destinies. We end up paying for this spending on violence in more ways then one. The horrible “blowback” of September 11th is another one of them.
Now, even huger allotments of this kind of mistaken spending are being sold to us by our leaders in the ostensible name of our “national interests”overseas and for the sake of protecting “national security” here on the home front. The truth is quite different: This is actually about protecting U.S. corporate investments overseas and enabling the even further enrichment in this country of the Military-Industrial Complex, which Wall Street indicators show, while much of the rest of the domestic economy tanks, is set to benefit immensely from America’s new war that is seemingly without end and from the Bush administration’s enormous largesse. Another excuse was needed after the ending of the Cold War to keep military spending at high levels and to make further cuts into human services. “Terrorism” has become the answer, the new anti-communism bogeyman.
This is not meant to justify scalping (which some historians think the Indians actually picked up from the white settlers who put bounties on Indian scalps) or any modern-day acts of terrorism against civilians (which certainly were taught to the likes of Osama bin Laden by the CIA in the previous Afghan War against the Soviets). But, let’s be frank, why shouldn’t Metacom and the Wampanoags and other Indians have been angry at the English invaders who showed up uninvited, took what they could take with their superior weapons, and wouldn’t go away? Why shouldn’t Arabs and people in many other parts of the Third World today be considerably incensed likewise at the U.S.?
Above all, shouldn’t we ourselves be angry at the unjust things being done to other human beings in our names, and with our tax dollars, by those in the corporate boardrooms and in the halls of political power — often one and the same — who actually call the shots in this country?
Telling the full truth, including all the less-palatable facts about America’s historical past, might help to illuminate the present. Events like 911 might be better understood – indeed, prevented. At least, if American citizens would get a more complete understanding of our history, we wouldn’t be so much at loss in making sense out of why we are not always perceived in much of the rest of the world as being the “good guys”. The Germans and the Japanese have begun to come to grips with the heavily mixed bags of their own respective histories, and they have become somewhat better and more humble countries for it, I think. It is full time for us in the U.S. to do the same.
Maybe then I can feel right about putting a “Proud to Be an American” sticker on my vehicle, along with the ones that say “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” and “Justice Not War”.
Jay Moore teaches history at the University of Vermont in Burlington. He is also the man behind Jay’s Leftist and Progressive Internet Resources Directory. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org