Over at I Love You But You’re Going to Hell (a nifty little site on conservative reactions to issues in American education), Adam Laats wrote about an interesting way some conservative pundits talk about the first Thanksgiving. Not only were the Plymouth Bay colonists collectivists in Rush Limbaugh’s words, flat-out Marxists (anachronisms aside) according to libertarian columnist John Stossel, but this was actually a good thing. Check it out:
From the post:
It would seem that conservatives would hate this conclusion. After all, the notion of the greatness of the American founders has long been a centerpiece of conservative thought.
So why do conservatives insist that the original settlers were communists?
For most conservatives, the communist experiment of early settlers is used to prove the superiority of private property and market principles. In most tellings, early communism proved disastrous. As a corrective, leaders such as William Bradford in Massachusetts introduced radical market-oriented reforms.
From there, Adam goes on to ask whether this is an accurate characterization of the history – whether Plymouth Bay was as Marxist, or at least as collectivist, as the conservative pundits think they were. It’s a fascinating reversal in the way conservative and progressives usually approach academic questions like this.
What really fascinated me about the topic, though, was this: whichever way the history turns out, you still have conservatives taking pride in the fact that America’s founders were wrong about something. One way of thinking about conservatives and progressives (the way I learned in high school civics) is that conservatives think “the way we’ve always done things” is good and so any change from that is less good, whereas progressives think “the way we’ve always done things” is imperfect if not outright bad, but that we’re headed toward (progressing) a future that’s actually going to be good.
If this interpretation of conservatism is true (and to be fair, it’s not the only way of thinking about the distinction), this moment in history puts conservatives in a bit of an awkward spot. I find it fascinating because it’s the same spot that religious fundamentalists so often find themselves in: either argue that everything done by America’s founders was good, or else have to defend your own reasons why any one particular action was paiseworthy. Your favorite amendment (first, second, fifth, whatever) no longer has an almost totem-like goodness, simply because our forefathers did it this way; you must also show why you think this moment in our history and not the later ones are so good.
Personally, I think that’s a first-rate tensions to be living with. It’s exactly the kind of questions we should be asking, progressive or conservative, as we wrestle with our history. But I know it’s not the most comfortable place to occupy at times.