Headless Pilgrims

Headless Pilgrims

Thanksgiving has always been a sham. It’s built on a hoary bit of mythology about how important it was for Native peoples and America’s early European colonists to set aside their differences (like, say, their differences over whether or not the entire continent was up for grabs) and eat some wild turkey together.

You don’t need to peel very much of the myth away to get a clear view of the DNA of the country the Pilgrims’ descendants would found: the United States of America, a democratic republic of white men. The Pilgrims and Puritans were themselves fleeing religious persecution, but that didn’t stop them from turning right around and persecuting others.

Unsurprisingly, crossing the Atlantic didn’t hit the reset button on the cycle of abuse that had been churning in Europe since the dawn of history: along with America’s early white settlers came habits of violent exploitation and fearful bullying.

As a boy, I was of course told the utopian version of that story. My mom still has one of my school projects: a mimeographed drawing of two headless Pilgrims, on which I was instructed to draw my own parents’ heads. (The sweeping assumptions inherent in that assignment were, in retrospect, mind-boggling.)

The assignment was intended to emphasize our commonalities with those early Pilgrims, but my baby-boomer parents wouldn’t necessarily have needed reminding.

My dad grew up in a family one generation removed from a small-town Minnesota life where ethnically-charged disputes between Catholics and Lutherans could fuel barroom brawls. My mom grew up in New Ulm, Minnesota, where she was scared by stories of the Dakota War of 1862 — and of the collective shade thrown towards the heavily German-American town during the 20th century’s two world wars.

Minnesota prided itself (as it still does) over being on the north side of the Mason-Dixon line, but the Pilgrims’ racism and ethnic resentments were amply present here.

19th-century Minnesota was the site of the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Native men were hanged in the wake of the Dakota War, their execution orders signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Ominously, the execution would have been even more massive if Minnesotans had their way. The condemned-prisoner list sent to Washington had over 300 names on it; Lincoln commuted seven death orders for every one he signed.

This was a country where that counted as restraint. Is it still?

* * *

Progress was a concept I believed in before I had a word for it. My childhood had its ups and downs, but it seemed comfortable to think that things were going to get better. I was going to grow up, and be happier. Technology was going to improve — with VCRs and microwaves multiplying, surely videophones and flying cars couldn’t be far behind. Society was going to improve. We’d made mistakes in the past, but we were going to learn from them. It was morning in America.

The first indication I remember having that things might not turn out that way was my discovery of the existence of nuclear weapons. I saw an episode of The Twilight Zone (the ’80s reboot) in which a character froze time to avert armageddon — but the trick was, that meant everyone except for her was frozen too. Leaving her husband and son cowering on the bed, she walked out into a street full of immobile, panicked people and looked up to see a missile hanging over the horizon.

I asked my mom about the episode, and she explained that there were missiles powerful enough to destroy entire cities, that there were enough of them to essentially obliterate civilization as we know it. Hardly progress, and absolutely terrifying.

My fears of nuclear war subsided slightly as the Cold War wound down, but another demon soon enough reared its head: the threat of climate change. Starting in the ’90s (as a teen I subscribed to Omni, so I knew all about the “greenhouse effect”) and accelerating into the Inconvenient Truth era and beyond, it’s become increasingly clear that our species is living inside a time bomb. We have a finite amount of time to slow global warming, or it will take us down with flood, famine, and very possibly a wholesale collapse of the ecosystem that sustains us.

Recently, the astrobiological bottleneck theory caught my attention. If the theory is correct, the fact that we’ve never encountered evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth may be the result of a universal or near-universal law: species extinguish themselves when, in the course of technological development, they inevitably alter their home planets’ ecosystems (likely by way of heating, as we are) to the point where their populations collapse before they ever make it out to the stars.

That puts an appropriately Twilight Zone twist on the idea of progress. The further we progress, the closer we get to our own undoing. That’s true for individual human beings, after all: even if you could perfect a regimen of constant self-improvement, every day would still bring your death closer. Maybe it’s the same way for humanity writ large.

I’ve been thinking of progress lately because it’s felt like our world has been so rapidly oscillating between progress and regress. Will we drive ourselves backwards toward extinction, forwards toward extinction, or is there — maybe, just maybe — still a way to move forward sustainably, to achieve real and lasting progress that doesn’t also draw constant debits from a finite account? Recently, that way has come to seem very, very narrow.

* * *

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of people — especially millennials — have been dropping references to the Harry Potter books. Others got fed up with the constant references to Dumbledore’s Army and the like. “Holy fucking shit,” tweeted Luke Bailey. “READ ANOTHER BOOK. Literally any other fucking book. Preferably some history but I’d take fucking anything at this point.”

I’m not inclined to judge, though. Stories give us hope, they help us find meaning, and they help people agree on a shared set of values at times when such agreements seem hard to come by. That’s one of the reasons I’m continuing on as an arts journalist: in a world of fragmenting information (and disinformation), the arts can unify.

It’s not as if J.K. Rowling wasn’t schooled in history, either. One reason her stories resonate right now is that she links the quest for ill-gotten power to the repression of marginalized groups. Racism is a powerful force that can be leveraged to unify a group of people who fear losing their privilege, and who believe that what’s rightly theirs has been taken from them by people who look, speak, or act differently.

While I was writing this, I saw a tweet by Jessica Cabot: “White men: Hey can you guys… um… are you done yet? Can we talk about something else other than the end of the world and your feelings?”

She nailed it. Here I am, a white guy, writing about my feelings and the end of the world — something white guys like me instinctively worry about because the fact is that short of a bomb or a natural disaster, we won’t be the first ones to suffer under a repressive regime.

Some people of color have been pointing out that sure, now white people are alarmed — and that we’re happy to condemn racial discrimination along with all the other imminent dangers. Where were the white people, though, when things were less dramatically calamitous, but all those racists were still out there being racist? It’s all well and good for a white guy like me to run around screaming, “The world could end!” Yes, yes it could — but hate crimes are happening right now, and they’re not happening to me.

A common cry in divisive times is that we should all “find common ground.” That logic is now being widely rejected — for example, by people who decide they can’t in good conscience sit at a Thanksgiving table with a relative who isn’t categorically opposed to the idea of a Muslim registry.

It’s been used plenty of times in the past, though, and it’s starting to become increasingly apparent to white people — like me — how often “find common ground” effectively meant “find common ground among white people” or even just “find common ground among straight cis white men.”

It wasn’t that long ago Americans regularly “found common ground” on policies including discriminatory drug sentencing laws, gays in the military, and housing subsidies that overwhelmingly favor suburban whites. This country was founded on “common ground” regarding the existence of slavery, and a similar argument could “let the states decide” about everything from women’s reproductive rights to voter ID laws.

Compromise is important, and inevitable, but people who aren’t straight white guys like me have done a lot more than their share of “compromising” over the past 240 years — and they often weren’t even asked, or weren’t asked in a way that allowed them to give a meaningful answer. The shock of an imminent threat to the progress that’s been made in recent years has cast a bright light on just how much far we still had, and have, to go.

In recent years, it’s been easy for white liberals to feel like we were in a comfort zone. Part of our challenge now is acknowledging that the comfort zone was never ours to delineate.

* * *

That Pilgrim worksheet encouraged my classmates and me to see ourselves in the proud lineage of American history. The country we inherited was made to seem a place of boundless potential, of limitless progress. The convenient omissions in the version of history we learned, though, would come back to haunt us. As generations of American children have learned in school — whether or not they realized it at the time — this country didn’t need Facebook to disseminate false and misleading information. It just needed good old-fashioned textbooks.

What we might have been taught, instead, is that America’s history of intolerance has constantly threatened to upend the nation’s very existence. Just as writing slavery into the Constitution made the Civil War an inevitability, so our refusal to forcefully address the persistence of racism and sexism — tendencies that complemented and exacerbated recent decades’ rising economic inequality — has brought us to a profoundly perilous juncture.

Even if I can’t any longer believe in Progress, I still believe in progress. We’re seeing it all around us, every day. There is a path forward, even if it’s become much more difficult. All Americans now have to forge that path, and those of us who have enjoyed unwarranted privileges due to our race, sex, and class need to acknowledge that if this work is going to succeed. On this national holiday, we need to serve ourselves some humble pie — and to be thankful for the opportunity. It may not come again.

Jay Gabler