American History As Commemorative Plate

Tom Cotton, squidly Senator from Arkansas and cryptofacist rhetorical roustabout, has again courageously volunteered to be the defender of America’s genocidal mythology. In the run-up to this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, Cotton took to the Senate floor amid a worsening pandemic to fire a few salvos from his battlefield bunker, otherwise known as Mitch McConnell’s Senate. His target? Cotton, a former-U.S. Army infantry captain, aimed his right-wing culture gun at the “revisionist charlatans of the radical left” who he says have conspired to ruin American history in a blizzard of political correctness. It seems he is still steamed-up over the NYT 1619 Project and it’s outrageously accurate thesis that slavery is as American as apple pie and turkey gravy. 

Cotton began his Senate speech by intoning “This year we ought to be especially thankful for our ancestors, the pilgrims, on their 400th anniversary.” Virtually everything that follows in the speech is lifted wholesale from the standard version cornball white people’s mythology of the first Thanksgiving. Nowhere does Cotton acknowledge that the cornball caricature he calls the story of Thanksgiving is actually not itself 400 years old, but is rather a retrofitted invention of twentieth century hustlers who wanted a suitably white origin story anchored in a colonial past, mostly to alleviate their own racial angst over the spread of Jim Crow and the growth of America’s immigrant population. At one point he actually quotes Calvin Coolidge!  If you are hungry for more truth-telling in this vein, check out Philip Deloria’s New Yorker article on “The Invention of Thanksgiving”

Rather than undertake here the tedious but otherwise so-easy-a-child-can-do-it task of refuting Cotton’s cartoonish claims about Thanksgiving’s history, I am thinking about WHY such a thoroughly debunked narrative gets recycled and splashed around with such apparent élan and devotion. At best, the traditional Thanksgiving narrative survives, as in Cotton’s hands, as a cold historical erasing of both fact and tragedy. Never do these apostles of white nationalism acknowledge, for example, that Native people in the area we call Plymouth Rock had a century of contact with Europeans before the Pilgrim’s showed up, and that they were all too familiar with the slave raiding expeditions that English privateers and mercenaries undertook against Native villages during that time. No mention either of the epidemic diseases unleashed by Europeans that had devastated the Wampanoag people prior to said Pilgrim arrival. Nor any acknowledgement of the ruinous effects on Native men, women, and children of the colonizer wars the English perpetrated after the chummy feast. In fact, in a strange sleight of hand, Cotton’s traditional narrative calls the Native people into a Pilgrim centered story, seemingly out of history’s thin air to have their moment as props on the white man’s stage, and then whisks them off again once the purported ‘Thanksgiving feast’ is finished and they are no longer needed in the smug, whitesplained moment. Indeed, when Cotton proclaims his gratitude to “our Pilgrim Fathers” it is crystal clear that he means white ‘fathers’ – even though the Wampanoag men were over half of the masculine equation at Plymouth. And despite the fact that they kept the Pilgrims from starving, this was not enough to merit them inclusion in the ranks of America’s ‘fathers.’ No. Why? Because Cotton and all the other Thanksgiving hustlers through time imagine America having only white fathers. Might be time for America to take some paternity tests.

So, look, as history, the Cotton ball fantasy of Thanksgiving is all bollocks. But as a symbol of racial conceit, it succeeds fabulously. It stands for what I’ll call the commemorative plate version of history. Unlike, say, the truth and honesty type of history, the commemorative plate version of history is NOT meant to be closely examined, but only held up as a gilded decorative display of white narcissism. The word history comes from the ancient Greeks, and it means to inquire, but that’s obviously NOT what Senator Cotton tail wants anyone to do. In fact, he dismisses the whole fact checking of history as “political correctness.”      

That is not to say a commemorative plate understanding of America’s past is not useful to a hustler like Cotton. After all, it offers a simple imaginary picture ideal for display. It will sit in a cabinet or reside on a shelf for years and years and only require occasional dusting. It is ceramic, and thus rigid and unchanging. After a while, you quit thinking about it. It’s like any other dusty little knickknack – inoffensive to the bearer, even if banal, inconsequential, and quietly reassuring, like a ceramic made from the dust of a narcotic.

America is a country learning all about the ruinous effects of overprescribed narcotics. And like oxycotin and fetanyl, this ceramic narcotic of a white nationalist past dulls our senses, warps our perception, and makes us sick. That’s because by insisting on the Thanksgiving story as an origin story, it blocks us from thinking beyond its simple reductionist memes, stifles our imaginative scope, keeps us from more clearly understanding the problems that confront us, and discourages us from imagining solutions. It just sits there, looking like a tacky gift shop tchotchke but acts like an anesthetic on the country’s imagination and stifles needed change. And thus the same people continue to benefit in the same ways for the same morally questionable reasons from the same cold system that the commemorative plate enshrines, just as the same people continue to suffer in the same ways for the same morally indefensible reasons. In that sense,  the commemorative plate is not about the actual history at all, it’s just a smug little meme to remind everyone that the ‘land of the Pilgrim’s pride’ is for white folks. Commemorative plates do not concern themselves with facts, after all, but sit voiceless as dusty, leaden symbols of fake patriotism and faux-heritage, a pleasant narcotic for those with privilege. And that’s just the way those Cotton swabs like it.

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