American history

Truth v Myth and the First Thanksgiving

Posted on November 21, 2018. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and what would it be like if the HP didn’t run its time-honored post on this American holiday, which debuted on November 15, 2010? Related is our short series on the NatGeo made-for-TV movie Saints and Strangers, in which we painstakingly debunk a pack of myths about the Pilgrims and the Americans they lived in relation to and dependence on. Enjoy, as you enjoy the holiday.

 

In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.

So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:

____

The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first Thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“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.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came randomly when the people felt they were needed as a response to current events, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

So that one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

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Veterans’ Day 2018: In defence of liberty

Posted on November 12, 2018. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

This Veterans’ Day, we offer a photo from a high school in America that was embellished by students as a repudiation of a hate crime was committed at the school (in the form of swastikas, anti-Jewish and anti-gay slogans spray-painted on the walls one night).

The current students’ annotation of the WWI memorial on the front of their school was a just and fitting tribute to the students of 1916-1918 and what they fought for:

Defence of liberty close-up

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Are our politicians supposed represent “we, the people”?

Posted on September 9, 2018. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’ve been re-reading that classic, magnificent, super-charged, and piercingly relevant masterpiece of discovery about the real roots and goals of the American Revolution called The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn. It was republished last year for its fiftieth anniversary, but there is nothing stuffy, boring, or outdated about this electric book.

That being the case, we’re going to devote a few series to this book, beginning here, with Bailyn’s masterful description of how radically… old-fashioned the American revolutionaries’ ideas about representative government were in the 1770s. In fact, they were positively medieval. This is the heart of Chapter Five: Transformation.

We all learn that the Americans (our shorthand going forward for revolution-minded American colonists in the mid-1700s) demanded representative government—government consented to by the governed. But that gloss is tragically incomplete, for it describes where we landed—with difficulty, just barely—by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and where we as a nation only fully rested after the Civil War.

Bailyn takes us back to the pre-Revolution mindset by comparing the American colonies to medieval England, before the 1400s. At that time, representatives of the common people to Parliament in London were “local men, locally minded, whose business began and ended with the interests of the constituency”. They were given explicit, written instructions about what they were to ask for and what they were allowed to promise in return. For instance, did the constituents want access to a waterway? That’s what their representative would ask for. The was the only reason he was sent to London to sit in Parliament. It was the only thing he would discuss in Parliament. He would not get involved in any other representative’s requests, which were all hyper-local as well. There would be no point. There were no grand debates about larger issues, no votes on items that impacted the whole kingdom—that was restricted to the House of Lords. (From 1341 on the Commons met separately from the Lords. Throughout the 14th century the Commons only acted as a single body twice, to complain about taxes in 1376 and to depose Richard II, with the House of Lords, in 1399).

In return, the local representative to the Commons might be allowed to promise that men from his locality would serve on a work crew elsewhere, or patrol the coast, or something else. The representative was sent to Parliament for that single purpose–to get the new mill–and was not authorized or expected to participate in any other discussion. If he got the mill but promised something he had not been authorized to promise, he would not be sent to Parliament again. Government was pinpoint specific and local, an amalgam of individual grants and favors repaid individually. [Bailyn 162-3]

Over the 1400s and 1500s, this slowly changed. It became something we recognize today as “right” and much more inspiring. Members of Parliament were not “merely parochial representatives, but delegates of all the commons of the land”; as Edmund Burke, the great political theorist (1730-1797) summed it up, members of Parliament stood for the interest of the entire kingdom of England. They were not

…a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which [they] must maintain against other agents, [but] Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. [Bailyn 163]

This sounds right to us. That’s the American political philosophy we know and love. We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We’re greater than the sum of our parts. Our members of Congress are in Washington not just to get our individual states things they want, like new roads. They’re not there to write laws that only benefit their individual states. They’re in Washington to write laws that preserve the national trust, that promote democracy for all citizens. They’re supposed to work together for the common good. That’s how we define government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Well, that’s how we define it now. But in the American colonies, the polar opposite was true.

Bailyn points out that this new, universal definition of political representation developed in England as it became more modern. The population grew, and towns and counties were less isolated and less independent, less like small kingdoms unto themselves. There was more of a sense of Parliament representing the English people, not this town and that town.

Just as this concept was settling into place in England, the Thirteen Colonies were being formed, and the situation in America was entirely different. It was a throwback to medieval times: a small population lived in tiny towns that were separated by long distances and therefore basically governed themselves. They were technically bound to follow laws made by the general court of the colony they were in, but those laws were few and not far-reaching. Local town government was much more important and vital and apparent to the vast majority of American colonists than the central, colonial government in the capital city. Each town sent representatives to the general court in the capital, usually once a year, and each town gave their representatives explicit, written instructions about what benefits to ask for and what concrete items they could give in return for the benefits. If a representative violated these written instructions they would not be re-elected by their town.

So as England was finalizing the concept of the representative as politician, of men skilled in general principles of law who worked with other politicians to create general laws that would benefit the kingdom as a whole, America remained firmly rooted in and dedicated to the concept of the non-professional representative, the local man bound to local interests. Americans preferred their representatives to be local businessmen, which at that time meant most representatives were farmers representing farmers, whose concerns were often minutely focused. As Bailyn notes, “disgruntled contemporaries felt justified in condemning Assemblies composed of ‘plain, illiterate husbandmen, whose views seldom extended farther than to the regulation of highways, the destruction of wolves, wildcats, and foxes, and the advancement of the other little interests of the particular counties which they were chosen to represent.'” [Bailyn 165]

It’s ironic, then, that as the revolutionary age began in America, it was England, not America, that had the attitude of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

How did America move from this medieval concept of government to the vision of democracy and justice for all? We’ll move closer next time.

 

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The Great American Experiment–a reminder

Posted on November 15, 2017. Filed under: American history, Bill of Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

It seems apropos to rerun this post as we look back on a year of the Trump administration. We originally ran it in 2008 when Barack Obama was first elected, and we re-ran it last year when Trump was elected. Perhaps we will run it every November, that great election month, to remind people of what is at stake each time they vote.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its establishment as part of a New World in the late 1400s, the land that has become the United States of America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles of liberty and justice for all that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant military veterans living in a small country town built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy—even when they don’t entirely fit that description given above.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America, the ideal that is represented by the Statue of Liberty.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere.

Sometimes we elect a president who is such an American, and his (so far only “his”) election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

Sometimes we elect a president who is not such an American—we elect someone from the loud minority who want to shut down the lab and restrict liberty and justice to some, not all. In that case, real Americans must redouble their efforts to restore our proper focus.

Whatever time you find yourself in, live up to your duty as an American, and keep the experiment going, not because it is easy, as one president once said, but because it is your birthright.

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George Washington had slaves

Posted on August 17, 2017. Filed under: American history, Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , |

We depart from our long-held commitment to refusing to talk about black slavery in America in order to make a point and address a worryingly common argument.

When Trump said yesterday that the anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were worse than the Nazis, he put it this way:

…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

This is the insidious poison of fascism: making false equivalences. We have to admit that when we first heard this, we thought that Trump was saying Lee and Jackson, Confederate generals, were heroes in the same way Washington was–military leaders, great Americans.

But it’s actually worse than that: he gives voice to the false equivalence that since Washington enslaved people, he and the Confederates had the same beliefs, the same goals, and the same impact on this nation.

This lie was ably debunked by Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, on NPR news:

SIEGEL: What clearly distinguishes a Robert E. Lee statue from a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue since all those men owned slaves?

SOMIN: There are two big distinctions. One, nobody honors George Washington precisely for the fact that he owned slaves, whereas the Confederate leaders, when they’re honored, are honored almost entirely for their service to the Confederacy, which was created for a purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery.

Second, while I think it’s very much correct to criticize the Founding Fathers for owning slaves, those of them who did, they also had great achievements in other areas which do legitimately deserve honor. By contrast, the Confederate leaders – very few of them would be remembered today but for what they did in the Civil War to protect slavery.

When we honor Washington, we honor him for his selfless devotion and unceasing effort in the fight to establish democracy in this country. We honor his refusal to become king when it was offered to him. We honor his wise leadership.

The list of achievements accruing to Confederate leaders is quite different. They promoted slavery, first and foremost. They were traitors to their country. They helped create the de facto enslavement of black Americans in their states after the Civil War.

That’s why statues of these people should never have been allowed to stand in this country. Somin goes on to address this:

SIEGEL: One of the arguments that’s heard is that a statue of Robert E. Lee reminds us of a dark chapter in our past, that it’s part of our history. Removing it is akin to erasing history. Does that argument hold any water for you?

SOMIN: I don’t think so. We should definitely remember this period in our history. And in fact, nobody proposes that we forget. But there’s a big difference between remembering history and honoring people who fought in defense of slavery. And what these statues do is they honor these people. They don’t simply commemorate them. If the goal was just simply to remember what happened, that could be done with museums, or that could be done with more appropriate public monuments, ones that actually acknowledge the evil of slavery.

The statues of Lee, Jackson, and all the rest of them are not reminders of the past, they are loving tributes, often hysterical in their lamentations over the Lost Cause. The honor and courage of all Confederates are consistently vaunted, as on this memorial in Tampa, Florida:

confederate 2

Enough is enough. It’s time to end the myth that the Civil War was begun by the Confederacy for any other reason than to promote slavery, and to end all false equivalencies that would connect George Washington with men who had no qualms about enslaving their fellow Americans.

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The Obama farewell address: advice from another world?

Posted on May 16, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

At long last we wrap up the close reading of President Obama’s farewell address that we began on January 13! We, like most of the nation, have been waylaid and distracted many times since then by the almost daily, certainly weekly news bulletins from Washington alerting us to almost every conceivable type of crisis or question or misstep arising from the Trump administration.

Five months into that administration, we begin to wonder if it serves any purpose to follow all those bulletins. What good does listening to accounts of our Constitution being violated, our national commitment to making liberty and justice for all a reality being ridiculed and undermined, or our president acting like a king do? What action can we take? Do marches work in the long term? Petitions? Shouting matches at town hall meetings? Jokes on late-night talk shows?

One of those things does work, and it’s nice that it’s the town hall meetings. On this site that so often discusses the Puritans, creators of the American town hall  and town hall meeting, it’s good to be able to join with our last president in his optimistic view of the future by recommending a return to something the Puritans valued deeply: taking right action.

In this case, it’s political action. As those Americans who believe our system of government—that any system, almost any kind of government—is the problem and not the solution, a hindrance at best and a trap at worst, attempt to dismantle it, we have to step up to keep it alive. Participate in local government. Vote, attend town hall meetings, go to candidate information sessions, learn how your government is supposed to work. Keep track of your state government. Write or call the people you elect to get information on how they plan to vote on upcoming legislation. Vote. Get referenda or other popular, grass-roots legislative change engines running if you need to. Do the same for your federal government.

This can be exhausting. Many Puritan men who were full church members and thus entitled to vote and run for political office chose never to become freemen and do so. (Freeman was their term for a full [male] citizen.) They knew how much time it took. Going to meetings after work is tiring. People with families may struggle to do it. Taking time out of the weekend is challenging.

But we were never so desperately in need of our democracy as we are now. So answer the call to right action. Be represented in our representative democracy. Choose the optimism Obama sent as his final message, the message that says if we remain inside our government, if we are its engine, we keep it alive and we keep it honest. Don’t let those Americans who break the government and then say we should throw it out because it’s broken achieve that self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t wait for Democrats to retake the House and Senate; this is just an aggravation of the partisanship that’s killing us. We need to find ways to unite. Cross as many bridges as you can to create unity behind the real American identity, which is ever-expanding justice, liberty, and the common good.

We’ll finish with a quote from John Adams to motivate us:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.

Go unite our states.

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Positive change v. negative: closing Obama’s Farewell address

Posted on May 1, 2017. Filed under: American history, Puritans, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the president’s poignant question “why was there a Civil War?”, since Yoni Appelbaum over at the The Atlantic does a fine job addressing that for us.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with President Obama’s comments on attacks on the Enlightenment order that is the foundation of the American way, with him saying there had not been a successful attack by foreign terrorists in the United States in the last eight years.

And although Boston and Orlando and San Bernardino and Fort Hood remind us of how dangerous radicalization can be, our law enforcement agencies are more effective and vigilant than ever. We have taken out tens of thousands of terrorists, including Bin Laden.

The global coalition we’re leading against ISIL has taken out their leaders and taken away about half their territory. ISIL will be destroyed. And no one who threatens America will ever be safe.

And all who serve or have served — it has been the honor of my lifetime to be your commander-in-chief. And we all owe you a deep debt of gratitude.

But, protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear. So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.

And that’s why for the past eight years I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties.

—This section starts out as the usual tough-on-crime/terrorism/”threats” section that is in most 21st-century farewell addresses, but then morphs into an attempt by the president to say that military action is not the only patriotic action, and that military action without constitutional underpinnings is as dangerous as any crime/terrorism/threats. But this section falls strangely flat. The quick half-sentence “we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are” is vague and could be used to support more militarization. It’s not clearly stating that military action alone has no moral value; it is judged good or evil by the cause it supports. And the Obama administration did not leave a great legacy when it comes to prisoners at Guantanamo, stopping surveillance of the public, and protecting privacy.

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans who are just as patriotic as we are.

That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights to expand democracy and human rights and women’s rights and LGBT rights.

No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight.

Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for, and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors.

Which brings me to my final point — our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.

—Here things pick up as the president says that fighting for human rights is “part of defending America.” That’s true. So long as Americans are willing to recognize extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism within the U.S., and not always just in other nations, and to fight it as hard here at home as they do abroad, we are on solid ground. The scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law will shrink if the U.S. only enforces rule of law outside its own borders. That’s what it means to say that no one can defeat America but ourselves—if we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight against injustice in other nations, our credibility is dissolved along with our democracy.

All of us, regardless of party, should be throwing ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions.

When voting rates in America are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should be making it easier, not harder, to vote.

When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes.

But remember, none of this happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.

Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.

Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.

—We heartily second all of the statements made here! When people lose faith in our political system, they stop participating, and begin to elect people they hope will either destroy that system as impossibly corrupt, or reform it through strong-man tactics—bypassing Congress via executive orders and/or pushing oppressive and unconstitutional laws through Congress. But we, the people, have to bring meaning to our government or it will cease to exist. That is the substance of Obama’s next section:

In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but “from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken… to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.”

Read Washington’s great address here.

And so we have to preserve this truth with “jealous anxiety;” that we should reject “the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties” that make us one.

America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others.

When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.

—It’s this kind of optimism that is so desperately essential to democracy. If, over 275 years later we still have to work to improve our democracy, we can see that as a clear sign that it’s hopelessly flawed and we should give up, or we can see it as a clear sign that our democracy has been greatly improved over those 275 years, and can just keep getting better and better. You have to choose the latter—choose optimism—to keep democracy alive.

Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.

If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.

If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

Show up, dive in, stay at it. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir in goodness, that can be a risk. And there will be times when the process will disappoint you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been part of this one and to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed. Mine sure has been.

—This is a call to energy and real life that more Americans need to answer.

Over the course of these eight years, I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I have mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in a Charleston church. I’ve seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch. I’ve seen Wounded Warriors who at points were given up for dead walk again.

I’ve seen our doctors and volunteers rebuild after earthquakes and stop pandemics in their tracks. I’ve seen the youngest of children remind us through their actions and through their generosity of our obligations to care for refugees or work for peace and, above all, to look out for each other. So that faith that I placed all those years ago, not far from here, in the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, that faith has been rewarded in ways I could not have possibly imagined.

And I hope your faith has too. Some of you here tonight or watching at home, you were there with us in 2004 and 2008, 2012.

—This list of the good and bad moments ends with an emphasis on the good, and subtly reminds us of the historic step that was electing our first black president.

The rest of the speech is shout-out to the First Lady, the Obama daughters, vice-president Joe Biden, the White House staff, and the vast network of volunteers who worked on his campaigns. And then this:

And that’s why I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans; it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference; to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.

Let me tell you, this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic — I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. You believe in a fair, and just, and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace, you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result the future is in good hands.

—These are defiantly positive statements to make as Donald Trump prepared to take office. Obama wants to counter the idea that there will no longer be a place in the country for those who did not support Trump, and encourage them to continue to push for the positive change that is the work of improving our democracy by extending and strengthening it, even as proponents of the negative change that is the work of narrowing and destroying our democracy look forward to having the upper hand.

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:

Yes, we can.

Yes, we did.

Yes, we can.

Thank you. God bless you. And may God continue to bless the United States of America. Thank you.

Next time: thoughts on how to live Obama’s optimism.

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Obama’s Farewell Speech: If only Washington hadn’t been so right

Posted on April 6, 2017. Filed under: American history, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

On we go at last with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite our temptation to address the latest violation of our Constitution re moves to end the right of judicial filibuster.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, since the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

We left off with this statement: “And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.” We pick up from there:

And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. Look, politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other.

(CROWD CHEERS)

And we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible. And isn’t that part of what so often makes politics dispiriting? How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on pre-school for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?

How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing? It’s not just dishonest, it’s selective sorting of the facts. It’s self-defeating because, as my mom used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.

—“A common baseline of facts”; we find that even in the short time since Obama’s farewell we have experienced many people lobbying harder than we could have believed possible to deny, denigrate, and destroy that foundation of rational society. “Fake news” has become the most used phrase in America, to our detriment, because it just doesn’t make sense. If something is untrue/a lie, it’s not news at all. There aren’t two kinds of news, the real and the fake. There is news of real events and lies/rumors of fake events. But we have been worked on so diligently by anti-democratic people that we seem now to accept that news itself is somehow suspect, and those anti-democratic people slander the truth as “fake news”, which is such a big leap into some dystopia from a YA novel that we can’t quite believe it’s happening, but it is.

Take the challenge of climate change. In just eight years we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil, we’ve doubled our renewable energy, we’ve led the world to an agreement that (at) the promise to save this planet.

(APPLAUSE)

But without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects. More environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary. Now we can and should argue about the best approach to solve the problem. But to simply deny the problem not only betrays future generations, it betrays the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.

—It’s amazing what ancient history this seems like just a few months later, as the Trump Administration has begun the process of undoing all of the climate change prevention measures the Obama Administration put in place, and has actually forbidden government agencies to use the term “climate change” in any written or oral communication. This is such a big leap into dystopia that it moves beyond YA to 1984, but it’s also happening. We will indeed be “busy dealing with its effects” even if we don’t say the words “climate change.”

It is that spirit — it is that spirit born of the enlightenment that made us an economic powerhouse. The spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket, it’s that spirit. A faith in reason and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies.

An order based not just on military power or national affiliations, but built on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.

—The “spirit” is that of “innovation and practical problem-solving” and it is indeed beholden to the Enlightenment; faith in reason and primacy of right over might, rule of law, human rights, and an independent press are what made the United States a great nation. Those are the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

(APPLAUSE)

That order is now being challenged. First by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam. More recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who seek free markets in open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.

The peril each poses to our democracy is more far reaching than a car bomb or a missile. They represent the fear of change. The fear of people who look or speak or pray differently. A contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable. An intolerance of dissent and free thought. A belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Because of the extraordinary courage of our men and women in uniform. Because of our intelligence officers and law enforcement and diplomats who support our troops…

(APPLAUSE)

… no foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland these past eight years.

—Sadly, that Enlightenment order we call the American Way is being challenged by Americans who are not Muslim or immigrants or “suspicious” in any other way. Freedom is being attacked by mainstream Americans who see it as standing in the way of their power. Our federal government is being dismantled, and what is left is being honed to serve individual profit. We are being turned against each other in the interest of people who will gain by our division.

We are, in short, seeing what George Washington warned us about most passionately and directly in his 1796 Farewell Address: treachery from within. Let’s turn to the first Farewell Address in American history, which seems as if it was written expressly for us in 2017 (we did the bolding):

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

—That is, you love your democracy and your democratic government, and you should. But remember that it is a painfully new idea, and there are going to be many people—outside the U.S. and even within it, your fellow citizens—who don’t believe it will really work. They will try to tear it down, and tell you you’re crazy, and get you to go back to the old ways. You’ve got to remember that being united under your unique government is your greatest treasure. Forget the things that make you different, like religion or customs and focus on what you have in common, what you share that no other people on earth share: a democratic government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

That was Washington’s message. We’ll continue on with Obama’s next time.

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Alt-right and other peculiar institutions

Posted on January 5, 2017. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , |

There was a story on the radio a while ago about the term “alt-right” that said in part:

[Ian Haney Lopez, UC Berkeley] says use of the term alt-right is an effort to make white supremacist views more palatable.

LOPEZ: It’s clearly a strategy designed to obfuscate the central tenets of the movement in a way that will hopefully allow that movement to enter mainstream discourse. That was the goal, and they’ve largely achieved that goal.

[Reporter Adrian] FLORIDO: He points to how pervasive the term has become in just the last few months. Heidi Beirich tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. She thinks the term alt-right is just the latest way white supremacists have rebranded themselves since the Civil Rights Movement [to make] their beliefs socially unacceptable.

HEIDI BEIRICH: If you said I’m white supremacist, you weren’t going to get talked to. So they rebranded to white nationalism in an attempt to still be in the conversation about politics in the United States. So it went from white supremacy to white nationalism and now from white nationalism to the alt-right or the alternative right.

FLORIDO: But Beirich says this latest term has done something new and ingenious.

BEIRICH: It specifically ditches the term white [and] it puts right in there. And what white supremacists were doing was to say we are part of the conservative coalition. We are part of the right wing.

Any student of history knows that language is everything. Coin the right name for your movement and you can gain a lot of ground. The name is so clear and persuasive that it not only explains in an instant what your movement is about, it claims the moral high ground. The Anti-Choice movement, for example, was smart enough not to choose that name—they called themselves Right to Life. This name at once tells people the group is against legal abortion and for a “baby’s” right to live. The fact that there is no “baby” to live or die in the first trimester, when most abortions are performed, is erased by an overriding irrational demand that we ignore this fact and agree that a baby is present from conception on and that every baby has a right to live. Who wants to deny that babies have a right to live, even when they don’t exist? A movement characterized by periodic acts of violence and everyday acts of harassment and hatred is given an entirely positive spin by its name.

Before slavery was abolished in this country, slaveholders and slavery apologists worked hard to come up with a name for slavery that made it sound like a “positive good” (the phrase they often used). They eventually hit on “our peculiar institution”. This name did a lot of work: it defined slavery only in terms of the American South so it could not be associated with slavery going on in nations we deplored as primitive (“our”), separated it from other social organizations in this country so that their principles could not be applied to it (“peculiar”), and gave the business of breeding human beings for sale the gravitas of politics and society (“institution”). This worked well for a while. It narrowed some people’s vision and kept them from dwelling on the fact that slavery was unconstitutional and violated our basic national founding principles—you couldn’t think about slavery in that way, like you thought about other features of U.S. society and business. Slavery was “peculiar”. It had its own ways. You couldn’t judge it in terms of liberty and justice for all.

Now we have “alt-right”, as explained above. We remember starting to hear this in mainstream media a few years ago, once in a while, but during the 2016 election it became a constant. You figured it meant “alternative right” and that it’s just a new term to replace “neo-con” or “far right”. And, sadly, the media did little to nothing to correct this impression by stating the truth: alt-right means fascist. The “alt” is “alternative to liberty and justice for all.” Conservatism—the right—in America had been becoming less and less about fiscal prudence and more and more about cracking down on non-whites, non-straights, and non-native-born Americans for decades, until it was easy for fascist white supremacists to just dump that negative name and say they were part of the right—part of a new right that was dedicated to white supremacist fascism. But they didn’t have to say that. They could just say “we’re a new kind of right wing–the alt-right.”

It’s a real problem that media routinely lacerated as “liberal”, like NPR, where the story quoted above comes from, allowed white supremacist fascists to take on a positive name, used that name, and helped make it mainstream. Belatedly now, as a man supported by nearly 100% of white supremacist fascists takes office, media outlets are trying to blow the whistle. Hopefully we can all help to strip away the benign alt-right name from this anti-American hate movement.

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Finding historical context for 2016–or manufacturing it?

Posted on December 16, 2016. Filed under: American history, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Since the presidential election, many people, including historians, have stepped up to say that the nastiness of the campaign and the election of Trump are not unique in American history.

You think this election was nasty? Look at Adams v. Jefferson! You think Trump says crazy things? Look at Andrew Jackson! You think Trump is racist? What about Wilson!

This is meant to reassure us that nothing fundamental is changing in American politics or society. But this is critically inaccurate. This type of comparison normalizes Trump, and fits him into a continuum when he is actually unique in presidential history. First and foremost, no other person has come into office swearing to destroy our federal government. Aside from that, we have had about about 60 years of dedicated expansion of civil rights in this country, to black, Asian, and Latino Americans; to women; to gay Americans; to non-Christian Americans.

Trump goes forcefully against the tide of this history and he is the leader of a backlash against civil rights in this country that we fear will last many, many years. Backlash is inevitable, but the fury of it now is alarming. One can only hope that once all the forces of white supremacy and sexism and homophobia come parading out, real Americans can do battle with them and restore the mandate to offer liberty and justice to all given in our founding documents.

So to all historians and others saying we need more civility, we agree up to a point: civil discourse is crucial to democracy. But 2016 was not about civility.  Yes, Jefferson v. Adams was uncivil—does that make it like 2016? No. Something much bigger is now at stake. Something much worse is happening.

We can’t use history to hide our heads in the sand and to (ironically) deny that this is a historic moment in our history. We can use history to inform our response to this historic moment.

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