Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and John Wayne

Today is our holiday of Thanksgiving. It celebrates a very famous feast, a harvest feast in the year 1621, shared by some of our original settlers, called ‘Pilgrims’ and the members of a local Indian tribe that had found advantage in allying with the Pilgrims against its own enemies. This mutual alliance, and the feast which celebrated it, has become symbolic of the founding of European civilization on the new world.

It has become fashionable these days to denigrate these symbols, and that is not a difficult thing to do. In fact, these Pilgrims were not terribly nice people. They were as religiously intolerant as were most Christians at the time. They did not come here to be friends with the local inhabitants, and some of their first acts were those of depredation, despoiling local graves, digging up caches of food that the local inhabitants had counted on for their survival, and taking land which was not theirs.

The local inhabitants were not saints, either. They were, by European standards, uncivilized. They lived in various states of constant warfare with their neighbors, and had no compunction about wiping these neighbors off the face of the Earth, if they had the opportunity.

Somehow, though, with all these faults, these two groups of people found common ground, and were able to sit down, feast, and spend a few days in games and frivolity. It is, in fact, a good symbol for this country; the ideal was the picture of the pastoral feast. The reality was all underneath, as it is, even today. We cannot pretend that we are Saints, but we keep symbols like this in our minds in order to remind ourselves of the ideals for which we are striving. There is nothing wrong with either the reality or the ideal. It is what makes us human.

This concept of symbolism should be looked at very closely. I am currently discussing John Wayne, with someone on the internet. This individual seeks to demonstrate that John Wayne was “an avowed white supremacist, a draft evader, supporter of Joe McCarthy and George Wallace, and a big booster of the Vietnam War. He in fact sharply criticized those (like himself in WWII) who avoided military service during the Vietnam War. This guy was a big conservative jerk-off”

Now, all those points are ridiculous, and I pointed that out to him, but that is not even the point he is missing at all. He was no interested in the facts of the situation, he was attacking John Wayne as a symbol. Wayne nearly always played the same character: a big, tough, but sentimental hero who talked straight and met the bad guys head on. That is his symbolic nature to millions of Americans. He is held up as an American icon, in the same mold as other such icons…Davy Crockett, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

Was John Wayne actually a big, tough, sentimental man who talked straight, and met the bad guys head-on? Perhaps, sometimes but, in real life, it can be assumed that he actually had faults, and was nothing like the character he developed on the movie screen.

Were there many Americans who cared about Wayne’s private life? Not at all. Wayne created that image of the hard-fighting two-fisted cowboy because America wanted him to do so. The image that Wayne created was the image that Americans had of themselves, as a people. If John Wayne, the actor, had not created John Wayne, the symbol, someone else would have. It was an image people wanted. In fact, Wayne did have a connection with the American West, and the cowboys who peopled the West. One of the earliest cowboy stars of the American film industry was Tom Mix, who got Wayne his first job in films, in the prop department in exchange for football tickets. Tom Mix was a friend of one of the most famous Western lawmen of all time, Wyatt Earp, who actually met Wayne when Wayne was six years old…Tom Mix had gotten his start as a cowboy on the most famous ranch of all time, the 101 Ranch, in Oklahoma. Wayne was more qualified to put himself up as the symbol of the American West as anyone else. He was a living reminder of our Western Past.

So, here we have two symbols of America, two images of how Americans see themselves. In the one, we have Europeans sharing a meal, in peace, and thankfulness for their bounty, with their neighbors, neighbors who share almost no values, no goals, no desires or even a viable frame of reference with each other but who, in spite of that, can sit down, share a meal and enjoy some moments of togetherness and gratitude to a greater being for the bounty that has been given them.

And we have John Wayne, the symbol of our great Western expansion, which brought us from that small gathering in Plymouth, Massachusetts to the shores of California. Embodied in those symbols were all the heartaches and tragedies of life in a wilderness, of the conflicts between peoples who wanted their share of the richness and bounty that the nation could provide. In the Pilgrims, we see the sharing of the bounty of the nation, in John Wayne we see the strength and honesty of a nation naïve enough to believe that we can all share this richness, bounty, strength and honesty. If people truly want to understand this nation, they should understand these two symbols. NOT the reality of the history of the nation, but the image that these symbols represent, and that we strive to emulate. The symbols are the heart of the nation, and as long as we maintain these images as our ideals, we will be Americans.

As those of you who have followed my columns would admit, I have a love-hate relationship with America. I love America for what those symbols represent, and love those people who have striven to uphold the image of what America could be. Far too often, Americans stray from the ideals upon which this country were established, and I am disappointed. Most of what passes for anti-Americanism within this country is based on that same disappointment. People look at the images of what the country should represent, and scorn the fact that the country does not meet the ideal.

It is foolish. We are people, and subject to failure…the wonderful thing about the country that these Pilgrims started IS the image of John Wayne….is the fact that, more often than not, we do rise to the ideals. To quote Winston Churchill, “Americans always do the right thing…after trying everything else, first.” I love this country for that reason. In the end, we are a good people, and the nation reflects that goodness. Chide us for the bad, but love us for the good we do.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving, people…and do not forget to give thanks for what you have, and what you can give. We are all blessed to be living in the United States, in the 21st century. May God bless you all, and bless the United States of America.

© 2006 Steve Haas, All Rights Reserved. The author also has his own weblog, Amber.

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