A Teacher’s Thanksgiving Wish for his Students and their Families
This Thanksgiving I want to wish each of you and your families a very happy holiday.
But this year, particularly in view of the violence, intolerance, and efforts to disown our nation’s history, exemplified by denunciations of our remarkably successful constitutional regime of freedom, and the tearing down (or proposed tearing down) of monuments to our country’s greatest heroes – including, incredibly, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and even Frederick Douglass – I want to add a special wish.
As you will recall, 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims on our shores – the event that truly launched the American experiment in self-government. Yet, amazingly, this event is being marked to my knowledge by nonational commemoration whatsoever. Indeed, the trustees of Plymouth Plantation, the living-history museum that has explained the Pilgrim settlement to schoolchildren and tourists since 1947, have recently announced a change in the institution’s name to “Plimoth Patuxet” (the Wampanoag name for the location) as a way of signifying, in effect, that we should think of the spot as still really belonging to the “native Americans” who previously inhabited it. The trustees are apparently signaling that they are embarrassed by the charge it has fallen on them to uphold. As many of you already know, the New York Times has launched a “1619 Project” for inclusion in schools across the nation, designed to teach children that our “real” national beginning occurred when a Spanish pirate ship landed the first cargo of African slaves in what was later to become the colony and then state of Georgia (but before that state, let alone the United States, had any actual existence).
According to the original description of the 1619 project – since slightly modified on its website, in response to denunciation of its factual inaccuracies by distinguished historians, most of them political liberals – the goal was to demonstrate that America’s purpose, from the outset, was chiefly to promote the institution of slavery; that the American Revolution was fought mainly for that purpose; that the Constitution itself (contrary to the vehement denials of Lincoln and Douglass) was a “slave document”; and that Americans today thus have nothing of which to be proud. Instead, we should either be atoning for our supposed “white privilege” (regardless of our economic status, ethnic background, or family history) or demanding “reparations” for the oppression that the United States has inflicted, and continues to inflict, on members of certain “minority” groups – African-Americans, so-called “indigenous” people, and Latinos. Joining in the trend of self-flagellation not merely for the sins of our country, but for those of the European explorers who first discovered the Americas in a manner that paved the way for their lasting settlement, Holy Cross’s administration this past fall announced that the holiday previously celebrated as Columbus Day would henceforth be commemorated as “Indigenous Peoples Day.”
As anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge should be aware, slavery, and its attendant horrors, was anything but an American, or even Western, invention. As the scholar Robert Royal has pointed out, slavery has been “a universal in human history from ancient Greece and Mesopotamia to China, classical Greece and Rome, as well as Russia, the scattered kingdoms of Central Africa, the First Nations of Canada, various other North American tribes, the great empires of the Mayans and Aztecs, the Ottoman Empire,” as well as the antebellum American South. The vast majority of African slaves brought to the Americas were shipped to Iberian South America, not the land that later became the United States. What distinguished America from this worldwide tradition was not the practice of slavery, but rather our political founding in a declaration that all human beings are naturally equal, and equally entitled to the protection of their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – which provided the grounding of the world’s great movement to abolish this evil institution. (The English abolition movement, which also began in the late 18th century, affected far fewer people. And it was the English, after all, who first planted the institution on our shores – against the strenuous efforts to combat its spread of the great liberal philosopher and statesman, John Locke, who inspired the Declaration of Independence.)
Condemnation of the European conquest of the Americas from their previous “indigenous” inhabitants rests in part on a myth that those inhabitants shared a sort of Edenic, pacific, nature-respecting existence prior to the arrival of the new settlers. This impression is utterly false. Long before the Pilgrims’ arrival, local Indian tribes, as Royal observes, practiced “continual tribal warfare with … scalpings, kidnappings, and torture of captives.” And in 1776, the very year in which Americans declared their independence, he adds, “the Lakota Sioux conquered the Black Hills, where Mount Rushmore” (the site of anti-American demonstrations this past year) is located, “wiped out the local Cheyenne who held it previously,” and who themselves had conquered it from the Kiowa. Slavery, too, “was a part of Native American traditions, both before and after” the European arrival, with at least 4,000 black slaves (owned by Native Americans) perishing along the Trail of Tears, the series of forced migrations of Indian tribes from the American Southeast to the West during the early nineteenth century. (See Royal, “Discovering Columbus,” Claremont Review of Books, Fall, 2020).
Respect for nature? When our daughters were young, while on a tour of American and Canadian national parks out west, our family stopped off at the “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump,” a UNESCO World Heritage site in Alberta – where we were invited to admire the “wisdom” of Native Americans who had devised means of tricking huge herds of buffalo (with the aid of fires lit at night) into jumping over a cliff, to their death, so as to harvest their remains. Imagine how many carcasses of those large, if not particularly intelligent, mammals must have been wasted! The Chicago stockyards at their worst seem far less cruel – and certainly less wasteful. Finally, it must be remembered that the great urban civilizations of middle and South America, such as the Incas and Aztecs, were built, Royal observes, “by conquest over neighboring peoples, and maintained by human sacrifice to bloodthirsty gods who required human blood” to maintain the world’s “equilibrium.” The Spanish explorer Cortes was able to defeat the Aztecs with only a small number of troops because he was aided by members of other indigenous peoples desperate to escape the sacrifices imposed upon them by their native, imperial overlords.
But enough of the relatively remote past. Most black people aside, the vast majority of present-day Americans who are not themselves immigrants are descended from immigrants (including, in my case, my father, and my mother’s family) who came to this country seeking liberation from the oppression they endured abroad. They sought the opportunity to advance in life denied them by the oppressive rule of the Russian Tsars, the British in Ireland, French aristocrats, Turks oppressing Armenians, Chinese and Japanese dynasts, and so on. In recent decades, their ranks have been swelled by millions of refugees and asylum-seekers (both legal and illegal) from the Spanish-speaking nations south of our borders – as well as many thousands from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the West Indies. To lament the European conquest of the Americas is to wish that all of our immigrant forebears had remained in the often-crowded “old countries” whence they came, and that we ourselves (assuming that our antecedents had survived such events as the Nazi Holocaust and the mass murders perpetrated by monstrous despots like Stalin and Mao) had inherited the mantle of serfdom and permanent poverty. It is also to lament the development of the single world power without whose efforts the Nazis’ and Communists’ pursuit of world domination might well have succeeded.
It will serve no purpose to stress here a fact that everyone knows: the continued existence in our country of large inequalities in income, education, opportunity, and susceptibility to criminal violence among different racial and ethnic groups. The reasons for these inequalities are complex, but they are not typically the result of legal obstacles placed in the way of people’s advancement. The causes, identified by numerous highly competent social scientists, include the continuing rise in single-parent families (a growing problem among whites, but much more severe among blacks and Latinos), which provide a poor environment for children, and one in which criminal gangs flourish; poor public schools, suffering from a failure to enforce discipline and from the influence and power of teachers’ unions, which make it almost impossible to dismiss incompetent or unmotivated teachers, while doing their best to block the establishment of charter schools and voucher programs that enable kids from poor families to attend private and parochial schools; minimum-wage laws that make it harder for young people to obtain entry-level jobs, along with other market restrictions, such as requiring individuals engaging in personal-care activities like hair-braiding and shampooing to obtain special licenses; and insufficient policing – polls show that a majority of African-Americans do not favor “defunding the police,” but rather wish the police presence in their neighborhoods to be either maintained at present levels or increased. Unfortunately, so long as considerable differences in crime rates among people of different races, or living in different neighborhoods, remain, it will also be the case that law-abiding members of certain minority groups will continue to suffer the indignity of being stopped by police for the offense of “driving while black,” or (in cities which still allow this) being randomly stopped on suspicion of carrying illegal firearms. Nonetheless, politically incorrect as it is to point this out, the vast majority of violent deaths of African-Americans come at the hands not of the police, but of other black people. (See, for instance, Jason Riley, False Black Power, and Heather MacDonald, The War on Cops).
Despite these obstacles, the United States continues to offer greater opportunities for poor people of all backgrounds to advance in life than any other nation on earth. The proof of this is the desperate quest of so many people from around the world to enter this country. Notably, black people from countries like Ghana, Somalia, and Nigeria along with the Caribbean, and Latinos from many impoverished and poorly governed nations to our south (poor government being the chief cause of impoverishment) continue to migrate here, and often to prosper. If America is a racist country, why are so many poor people of color seeking to enter rather than flee it?
So as to avoid disclosing family confidences, I have not spoken here of my remarkable biracial grandchildren and their parents, on one side, or of my other impressive family of Orthodox Jews, on the other. Who in history, prior to the founding of the United States, could have imagined a country in which a single family, as religiously, ethnically, and racially diverse as mine, whose forebears include slaves and also Jews who escaped Tsarist oppression (the latter having left behind relatives who refused to emigrate and who were later wiped out by the Nazis), could flourish as we have done?
America is not a country best characterized today as suffering either from widespread racism or “white fragility.” As journalist Heather MacDonald, who last fall was allowed to address a Holy Cross audience – a limited one, since a black student organization had occupied half the seats in the auditorium, departing after five minutes with assurance from the administration that none of the students waiting outside to enter the hall would be allowed to take their places – pointed out, students at colleges like Holy Cross, whatever their race or economic status, are among the most privileged people on earth. The college provides a devoted faculty, extensive library resources, remarkable athletic facilities, and numerous staff aiming to help all of you succeed. Even more than most Americans, you have every reason to be grateful.
But beyond your particular privileges, I beg you, above all, to celebrate not only a happy Thanksgiving, but a thankful one, expressing your appreciation at least by memory to all those who have given their lives – often literally, on the field of battle – to secure for you and your families, along with your fellow Americans, the blessings of liberty. Attend not to the slanders hurled at our country by race-baiters and demagogues like New York Times editors, “the Squad,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates (who named his son, the addressee of his 2015 book Between the World and Me, after a late 19th-century African leader who, according to Royal, “captured and sold black slaves” in order to finance his empire-building). Contrary to Coates and the Times editors, Frederick Douglass, in his renowned 1852 Fourth of July Oration, expressly denied (just as Lincoln did) that the American Constitution was designed to support slavery (the words “slave” and “slavery” appear nowhere in it), but was rather “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” (his caps). And back in 1849, in his essay “The Destiny of Colored Americans,” the great abolitionist refuted those who would separate black people from their proper place in the American polity, calling this nation – not Africa – “the abode of civilization and religion.” Those like ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who express their contempt for our country’s flag and all it represents while raking in millions are guilty of extreme ingratitude. Douglass, a man of enormous pride as well as heroic achievement, would have had nothing but scorn for such behavior.
Please, this Thanksgiving, be thankful. In the future, do your best to acquaint yourselves with the thought and achievements of America’s greatest thinkers and statesmen, and of the liberal political philosophers who inspired them. And – when you find the time – please watch Ken Burns’s marvelous documentary film series “The War,” which originally appeared on PBS a decade or so ago. It depicts the inestimable sacrifices that ordinary Americans of all colors made, both on the battlefield and at home, to keep our country, and the world, free during the Second World War.
Speaking for myself and my wife, I can never cease to be grateful that our respective fathers and grandparents, who possessed practically no material wealth at the time, were allowed to enter this country and become citizens, a century and more ago. Like so many other immigrant parents, they worked like hell so that we and our siblings and children could attend college and graduate school and enjoy opportunities unrivaled by anything that anyone but kings, aristocrats, and despots might have enjoyed in the world’s previous history.
Again, I wish you and your families a happy, blessed, and thankful Thanksgiving.