IT IS ODD that the national holiday set aside for the benign purpose of expressing
gratitude should also celebrate a primal encounter between European settlers and
the native peoples who preceded them.
In the American memory, Miles Standish, in his Pilgrim hat and broad collar,
is forever shaking hands with Massasoit, who saved the settlement from hunger
with instructions about growing corn and catching turkeys. It was 1621 when the
settlers and the natives sat down together to celebrate ''good increase,'' and
their harvest banquet became the paradigm of neighborliness, the good feelings
we all indulge this week.
One needn't attribute base motives to those English separatists to acknowledge
that their arrival was anything but an occasion for thanksgiving to those who
greeted them. Indeed, the mythic encounter that took place at ''Plimouth'' was
an instance, in a phrase of the historian Jared Diamond, of ''the greatest collision
of modern history,'' the colonization of the New World by Europeans, which led
to the effective disappearance of most groups of native peoples.
Less than 100 years before Standish and Massasoit met, a far more typical encounter
took place well to the south when the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured
the Inca ruler Atahuallpa. The year was 1532, and that event, too, occurred in
November. It was the true paradigm for what was coming because, despite collecting
a massive ransom, Pizarro murdered his prisoner and conquered the Inca people.
In his book ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' Diamond asks why the outnumbered Europeans
were so successful in overcoming the forces that greeted them. He finds answers
in the military advantage of their horses, guns, and armor, but there was the
even more decisive factor of ''diseases transmitted to peoples lacking immunity
by invading peoples with considerable immunity.''
A smallpox epidemic had come to the Inca region ahead of Pizarro, and, indeed,
smallpox would clear the way for European settlers again and again. The succumbing
of native populations to ''germs'' throughout the New World is well known, but
invader-borne disease was a key factor wherever European colonizers traveled,
from South Africa to the islands of the Pacific.
In the eventual outcome, it did not matter whether the arriving Europeans came
in a spirit of amity, as we like to think those Pilgrims did, or of conquistador
bellicosity. Standish or Pizarro - all the same. Some colonizers were guilty of
deliberate acts of genocide, while others were the passive beneficiaries of less
violent mutations. From the point of view of those replaced, however, the newcomers'
arrival itself was the destructive event.
The image that Graham Greene famously applied to ''The Quiet American'' - ''a
dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm'' - is
apt for colonizers of all kinds, whether they mean harm or not. The movement of
populations and the intermingling of cultures are morally complex phenomena, although
in memory they are made simple by the disappearance of the displaced persons and
their lost cultures. Massasoit is remembered as happy because he is a character
in the morality play written by the Pilgrims and their children. Massasoit's own
story is untold this week.
The reason to acknowledge, against all mythology, that there has been a universally
brutal underside to migration, often involving conquest and victimhood, always
involving infection of some kind, is not to renounce the profoundly human impulses
to move and settle. Rather, it is to invent an ethic of movement and settlement
that is respectful and nonviolent toward those whom the newcomers encounter. Therefore,
the main moral obligation settlers have upon arrival is to see their arrival from
the point of view of the indigenous.
This is true on the local scale: Such a shift in seeing explains why a majority
of Israelis oppose in principle most Israeli ''settlements'' in the disputed territories.
And it is true on the global scale as well, since ''settlements'' today can involve
the airways as much as land. Thus, an American-style beauty pageant, with its
celebration of the female as sex object, can be yet another dumb leper wandering
the world without a bell, meaning no harm. Media and entertainment entrepreneurs
have an absolute obligation to anticipate - and mitigate - the culture-smashing
effects of their interventions.
Thanksgiving is a simple feast, but the event it commemorates was complex.
A profoundly American story, yet the tale of the encounter between the settlers
and the natives has never had more human resonance. Can one culture meet another
without destroying it? Can both cultures survive, celebrating a new mutuality
of influence and exchange? Can the hope that was embodied in Massasoit's gift
of corn and turkeys, and in European gratitude, be finally realized?
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company