Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Erickson Report for December 23 to January 5, Page Two: Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

The Erickson Report for December 23 to January 5, Page Two: Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

So now the natural follow-up: Why is January 1 New Year's Day? Because that wasn’t always true. So why?

In large part, the reason has to do with the convenience of the Roman senate, a calendar almost no one uses any more, and the stubbornness of tradition.

The earliest recorded New Year's celebrations are believed to have been in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago, that is, about 2000 BCE. Babylonians began the year with the first new Moon after the vernal equinox and greeted it with a multi-day celebration called Akitu. This actually is a logical time to start the year, since the vernal equinox is the first day of spring, in mid-March, and spring is traditionally a time of beginnings, of renewals, of planting crops and the birth of new farm animals.

Various other ancient cultures used different days, but all had some astronomical or astrological significance:

The Egyptians used the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, which is again the brightest star in the night sky of the northern hemisphere. The heliacal rising is when a star can be seen to be rising in the east just before sunrise, just before it is too bright to see any star other than the Sun. For Sirius, this takes place in what is by our present day calendar mid-July and it was important because it predicted the annual flooding of the Nile, an event so important to the the Egyptians' agriculture

Persians used the vernal equinox; the Phoenicians used the autumnal equinox, which is the first day of fall; while the Greeks used the winter solstice, the first day of winter.

All these choices carried some meaning beyond the date itself. January 1 doesn’t. So why January 1?

An early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the first day of a new year. This also explains something else you may have wondered about: If March is the first month of year, September is the seventh - and the Latin for "seven" is septem. Likewise, October, November, and December: octo being Latin for "eight," novem for "nine," and decem for "ten." Those months were named as they were because they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year.

That early Roman calendar was a lunar one, based on the Moon. The problem is, the average lunar month is about 29 and a-half days and there is no way you can match that with a solar year of roughly 365 and a-quarter days. And it is the solar year, not the lunar year, which drives the seasons.

What’s more, that calendar consisted of 10 months and a 304-day year and didn't even count the days between the end of December and the beginning of the year at the vernal equinox, with the vernal equinox apparently being designated March 1.

The calendar was reformed around 713 BCE to add the months of January and February, creating a year of 355 days, still 10 days off the solar year. To correct this, the Romans from time to time inserted a leap month of about 22 days into February, which served to over-correct the disparity between the calendar and the solar year, giving them some time before the error again got so big that another leap month was required.

Next, according to general but apparently not universal agreement among historians, in about 153 BCE the Roman Senate moved first day of year to January 1 because that was beginning of the civil year, time that newly elected Roman consuls began their terms in office, and it was felt to be just more convenient to have the civil year and the legal year start on same day. January is also a reasonable time because January was named for Janus, the Roman god of gates, doors, and beginnings - that is, the god of all transitions - who had two faces so that he could see both the past and the future simultaneously.

Despite all the repeated corrections, by the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar remained seriously out of whack with the solar year. So in 46 BCE Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar. This Julian calendar, as it came to be called, also introduced the use of leap years to keep the calendar year from drifting too far from the solar year. Remember that the solar year is about 365 and one-quarter days, so every four years the calendar and the solar year diverged by a day and that error accumulates. So it doesn't take a great many years before the difference is noticeable. Adding a day every four years keeps the calendar more in line with the solar year. This same calendar came with a decree that firmly fixed January 1 as the start of the new year.

After the Roman empire fell, the generally-accepted year for that being 476, and as Christianity began spread across Europe, the Catholic church, which remember had previously adopted and adapted a fair part of the merry side of Saturnalia, now felt it was in a position to downplay "pagan," "unchristian" festivals such as those that had come to surround the new year in Rome.

So in 567, the second Council of Tours banned the use of January 1 as the first day of the new year. Remember, this is at a time in European history when the authority of the church in civil matters, not just religious ones, was all but unquestioned. If the church said do it, governments did it.

As a result, in the Middle Ages in Europe, the official new year started at different times in different places, the old day of March 1; March 25, which is the Feast of the Annunciation and right around the vernal equinox; Easter, even though was a different day year to year; and December 25, by then the traditional birthday of Jesus.

But remember: Julius Caesar had set January 1 as New Year’s Day in 46 BCE - which means that by time the Council acted, the practice of keeping that as the first day of the year had been going on for 613 years and was so well established that a lot of people simply ignored the "official" date and kept to the older one.

The Julian calendar also was flawed because the solar year is actually a few minutes shorter than 365 days and six hours, so the use of leap years every four years slightly over-corrects the difference. A few minutes may not seem like a big difference, but again the error accumulates over time and by the latter 1500s it had grown to 10 days.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII oversaw design of new, more accurate calendar, which changed the rule of leap years such that only century years divisible by 400, not 4, would be leap years, the better to prevent the over-correction of the Julian calendar. Thus, 2000 was leap year, but 1900 wasn't and 2100 won't be.

This still leaves a tiny over-correction but it will take over 3000 years for that error to build up to a single day, so nobody really cares and we'll all be using star dates by then, anyway..

Most significantly for our story here, Pope Gregory apparently knew a losing battle when he saw one and surrendered to tradition, restoring January 1 as the official New Year's Day for the church after 1015 years.

Catholic countries in Europe were quick to adopt the new calendar, with Spain, France, and Italy doing so the year it came out. But Protestant ones did so only gradually, suspicious that the “Antichrist in Rome” was trying to trick them into worshiping on the wrong days.

Scotland, for one, didn't adopt new calendar until 1600, nearly 20 years later. And England, which had used March 25 as start of year since sometime in the 1100s, didn't finally make change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar - along with its colonies, which included us - until 1752, 170 years later, by which time, the Julian calendar was 11 days behind the Gregorian, which was corrected by removing 11 days from the year: Wednesday, September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752.

There are tales of riots breaking out with people believing their lives would be 11 days shorter or that they had lost 11 days of wages. While such sentiments existed, historians now are of opinion that the story of riots is a myth. However, the change of calendar was an issue in the 1754 parliamentary elections so it's hard to credit the idea that there were no protests of any sort.

Anyway, that's it: January 1 is the first day of year not due to any special meaning or relevance of date itself, but due to the convenience of the Roman Senate, the Julian calendar which almost no one uses anymore, and the surrender of Pope Gregory XIII to persistence of tradition.

2020 really was a hell of a year for us and for the world and for me personally. I think my favorite remark on it was Stephen Colbert saying he would never forgive 2020 for making him miss 2019. But we've gotten through it, we've kept going, and now we actually can see some reason to hope.

So in the spirit of Constantine, let me say Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus, for all the atheists like me and all the pagans out there, Happy Winter Solstice, and to all of us, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. Like the man in the story said, we are halfway out of the dark.

The Erickson Report for December 23 to January 5, Page One: Why is Christmas on December 25?

The Erickson Report for December 23 to January 5, Page One: Why is Christmas on December 25?

This show will be seen in the last week of December and the first week in January, so I’m going to engage is a sort of holiday show and put aside heavy-duty politics in favor of addressing precisely two burning questions: Just why is Christmas on December 25, as opposed to any other day of the year? And why is New Year’s Day on January 1, as opposed to any other day of the year?

To answer about Christmas, about why it’s on December 25 as opposed to June or something, right at the top, you have to realize something. Based on how we celebrate the season, based on how we - and by that I mean Americans and to a perhaps even greater extent Europeans - engage and embrace the season, the traditions we follow in our celebrations, Christmas is expressed in symbols such as Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, brightly-wrapped presents, candy canes, wreaths, and mistletoe, along with local traditions.

It is not expressed by a creche.

Because you know those people who go around saying that "Jesus is the reason for the season?" He isn't. And he never was. Now that half of you are composing nasty emails, let me explain. The season is because of astronomical patterns.

Until relatively recently, people were much more aware of the movements of the Sun and Moon and stars than we are now unless you are either a dedicated stargazer or an astronomer.

Such movements were necessary signs of the changing of the seasons, of when to plant, when to reap, when seasonal rains were coming, when game would be plentiful, and so on. The sky was their almanac, their seasonal calendar.

Some of that awareness lives on in popular expressions and mythology. For example, did you ever wonder why the hot humid days of July and August still sometimes are called "the dog days?" Ancient peoples by their observations were able to realize that the star we call Sirius, which is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the night in the middle of winter, is at its highest point in the sky in the middle of the day in summer.

Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky in the northern hemisphere. It is in the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog, and is known as the Dog Star. So the middle of summer becomes the days of the dog - the dog days.

In prehistoric times and even well into recorded history, people believed that things like the Sun acted willfully or were controlled by gods that acted willfully - and each year watching it get lower and lower in the sky each day as winter approached, a fear developed that one year, one of these great cycles, the Sun would keep sinking until it disappeared below the horizon, leaving them in perpetual darkness and cold. So each year, when the Sun stopped sinking and began to rise higher in the sky each day, it was reason to celebrate.

 This is the time of the winter solstice, which occurs in the Northern Hemisphere, depending an exactly where you are, around December 21 or 22.

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words - sol and sistere - which together mean that "the Sun stands still," which is what it appears to do at the solstice: Every day, the sun had been lower and lower in the sky; at the solstice, it stops doing it and then reverses, climbing higher and higher each day.

All over the Northern Hemisphere, this was a time to celebrate: China had celebrations, as did ancient Egypt had celebrations, as did ancient Greece - in fact, in the earliest days, theirs involved a human sacrifice.

The Druids celebrated, it was celebrated in Iran, Native American peoples of North America, including the Pueblo and the Hopi, had their celebrations.

In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was called the Yule. Great yule logs were burned; people drank mead around bonfires listening to tales of great stories of the past. A boar was sacrificed to the chief god Odin, who donned a broad-brimmed hat and magic blue cloak and sped around the world at night on his great white horse. Mistletoe, which was a sacred plant because it grew on the most sacred tree, the oak, was cut and a spray given to each family to be hung in doorways as good luck.

That is our first reminder that a lot of our holiday traditions - including the term "Yuletide," the time of the Yule - are drawn from pagan ones, including decorating with garlands, wreaths, and the Christmas tree itself, along with the man who can magically fly around the whole world in one night.

For the date of Christmas, though, now we're getting into the space that lies between history and interpretation.

While historians are confident they can date the year of the birth of Jesus without a couple of years, no one knows the day of the year Jesus was born - or even what season. To the extent that the Bible can be trusted as a source we can be very confident that it was not in the winter since shepherds did not watch their flocks by night at that time of year; the flocks would most likely have been corralled.

In fact, "watching their flocks by night" was most commonly done in the spring when the flocks were pastured and newborn lambs needed special protection from wolves. That has lead some to argue he must have been born in the spring. But that is an awfully thin reed on which to try to build a foundation, much less a conclusion.

What's more, the earliest known use in English of the word "Christes-Maess," or the Feast of Christ, or Christmas, was in a list of Feast Days with Mass Days that was set down in England in 1038, a thousand years after Jesus died. No Saint's day listed for December 25th.

Indeed, early church leaders (I'm talking 2nd and 3rd centuries here) argued about when Jesus was born - the options included January 2, March 21, March 25, April 18, April 19, May 20, May 28, November 17, November 20, and, yes, December 25. And at the same time, some, such as Origen, argued that the whole thing was pointless and wrong because it shouldn't be celebrated at all. Celebrating birthdays, he said, was for pagan gods.

Still, by the mid-third century, the idea for having a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus was getting established. Nonetheless, it took another hundred years for that notion to become formalized and for a date to be fixed.

Meanwhile, in 313, Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan, legally allowing Christianity in the Roman Empire - actually, he went considerably beyond that; the text actually says it was

proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.
Which shows a lot more tolerance than many here do today, especially among our right-wing so-called Christians, the fanatics who every year around this time get such a kick out of playing the oppressed victim under the relentless assault of the atheistic socialistic hordes - even though Christians make up over 78% of the US population.

Oh, and as a sidebar and contrary to popular belief, while Constantine considered himself “an emperor of the Christian people,” he did not actually formally convert by getting baptized until shortly before his death in 337 and Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome until 380, 43 years after his death.

Getting back to the point, the earliest known reference to Jesus being born on December 25 doesn’t come until the first years of the 3rd century, about 175 years after he died, with the first recorded date of his birth actually being celebrated on that day was not until 336. And it wasn’t until 350 when Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December.

But that just brings us back to the start. How did the chosen date, why did the chosen date, come down to December 25? That was the question, after all.

To answer that, first remember that these developments were taking place in Rome, which had become the nerve center of organized Christianity.

Which brings us us back, in turn, to the winter solstice. The Romans, like many other ancient peoples, had solstice celebrations. In Rome it was called Saturnalia.

This was originally a feast day to the god Saturn, but over time it grew to a gigantic fair and a festival of the home. It began with sacrifice of a pig and involved riotous merry-making, feasting, and gambling. Houses were decorated with laurel and evergreens. Schools were closed; the army rested; no criminals were executed.

Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, incense, and more. Temples were decorated with evergreens. Processions of people danced through the streets, with masked or blackened faces and wearing fantastic hats.

Masters feasted with slaves, who could do and say what they liked - supposedly, anyway. I doubt they really felt free to push the privilege very far since in at most a few days later they would be back to just slaves, but hypothetically they could.

Notice, by the way: traditions including decorating your home. Laurels. Visiting friends. Gift-giving. Holiday parties. Not Christian traditions, Roman ones. Pagan ones.

The old Roman goddess of the solstice was Angerona, whose festival day was, logically enough for a goddess of the solstice, December 21st.

But when Mithraism, personified by the god Mithra, was introduced to Rome in the mid-2nd century, the goddess was largely supplanted in favor of Mithra's day of seasonal rebirth, which was December 25. Mithra, himself a composite of earlier beliefs, became amalgamated with a Roman sun god named Solis Indigini, or the Native Sun, a god which in turn came from the Pelasgean titan of light named Helios.

"Pelasgean," by the way - yes, another sidebar - was how the ancient Greeks referred to the people who lived in the region before Greek culture emerged.

This new being, this combination of Mithra and Solis Indigeni, this composite of two composites, was Sol Invictus, the "invincible" or "unconquered Sun," and Mithra's day, December 25, became Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the unconquerable Sun. When the emperor Aurelian proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in 274, the day became an official holiday.

So, put it all together. Before Constantine the Great issued his Edict of Milan in 313, being a Christian in Rome could get you killed. Refusal to participate in the Imperial cult was considered treason.

During the Great Persecution carried out by the emperor Diocletian from 303 to 311, Christian buildings and the homes of Christians were torn down, their sacred books were collected and burned. Christians themselves were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So if you wanted celebrate the birth of the man you regarded as your savior - and the idea of having such a celebration was by then pretty widely accepted among Christians - you had to hide it. So since the time is purely symbolic and basically arbitrarily chosen because no one knows the actual date for certain and it's really based on tradition and nothing more, what better time to do it than during Saturnalia - when everyone else was celebrating and so no one would notice? And what better day to pick than December 25, when the birthday of the unconquerable Sun could be thought of as the birthday of the unconquerable “Son?"

Indeed, according to St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, writing in the late 4th or very early 5th century, just a few decades after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome,

[the] Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate about [undisturbed] while others were engaged in secular merrymaking.
The Kalends, by the way, is the first day of each month in the Roman calendar; it’s the source of our word calendar. And yes, there was a popular folk festival in Rome the first week of January which was a significant part of the Roman solstice celebrations.

By the year 354 CE, four years after Pope Julius I had designated it as such, December 25 had been accepted in Rome as the date of the Feast of Christ, or Christ-Mass, Christmas. Gradually most of the Christian Church agreed.

Once Christianity became the legal religion of Rome in 380, the church began appropriating what old pagan customs it could, with the result that the merry side of Saturnalia was gradually adopted and adapted to the observance of Christmas.

And so that is why Christmas in on December 25: Because Christians hid within, then adopted, then adapted, pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. By 1100 Christmas was the peak celebration of the year for all of Europe.

But let me finish up by saying that even then the idea was not universally accepted. Origen's conviction that celebrating the birth of a god was for pagans persisted among conservative Christians for centuries, including among the separatists and Puritans who settled Plymouth and Boston here in Massachusetts. They regarded Christmas as a pagan celebration with no Biblical justification. Instead of Yuletide, Puritans called it “Foolstide,” proving that no, puns are not a recent invention. In fact, at one point Boston had laws against celebrating Christmas.

As an illustration of the attitude, we have the journal of Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, who in the entry for 1621 recalled what he called a passage "rather of mirth then of weight." (Spelling in the excerpt has been modernized.)
On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new company [Here is referring to some people who had arrived the month before, in November 1621, on a ship called “Fortune.”] excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly.
That last part gets some added significance when you recall that Bradford is writing here in about 1631 or 1632, about 10 years after the fact.

 And the outlawing of Christmas not just here at home. In 1644, Great Britain's Puritan-dominated parliament passed an ordinance which called for December 25 to be a day of “solemn humiliation,” following up in 1647 by abolishing outright the feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun - known in the US as Pentecost. The ban was not lifted until the restoration of the crown in 1660.

Back in the colonies, as I already mentioned, the MassBay colony - that is, Boston - banned celebrating Christmas altogether. That was in 1659. The ban remained in place for 22 years, until 1681, and even then it was a governor appointed by the restored British monarchy who revoked the ban.

Despite the lifting of the ban, the first recorded celebration of Christmas in Boston wasn't for another five years, in 1686. Even for many years thereafter, Thanksgiving remained the important seasonal holiday in New England.

Then in the wake of the revolution, interest in Christmas in the former colonies faded because it was seen as a British holiday. In fact, Christmas did not again become a major holiday in the US for several decades, not until a religious revival in the early 1800s spurred interest in the day, particularly in the South. As a result, it was, it's generally agreed, more than 50 years after the revolution before Alabama, in 1836, became the first state to make the day a holiday.

Even then, New England continued to lag behind: In Plymouth, the first time Christmas was even mentioned in one the town’s newspapers as far as anyone can tell wasn't until 1825. As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “The old Puritan feeling prevents [Christmas] from being a cheerful hearty holiday” in the region, but, he added, "We are in a transition state."

And so it was: By 1860 that same Plymouth paper - which, interesting sidebar, is still being published, by the way, 198 years after it started - was filled with ads for Christmas presents and by the end of the century Christmas was as much a part of Plymouth and the rest of New England as it had become in the rest of the country.

The Erickson Report for December 23 to January 5


The Erickson Report for December 23 to January 5

Just two things this holiday time:

Why is Christmas on December 25?

Why is New Year's Day on January 1?

Take a break from politics for a walk through history.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Nine: Some good election news for progressives

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Nine: Some good election news for progressives

We end this time with one last quick look at the election to note not only that according to one analysis, the Democrats may have done about as good as they might and the predictions of large gains were more a matter of over-optimism than facts on the ground but more importantly that, as Jim Hightower points out, for all the hand-wringing about down-ballot losses 2020 was hardly a debacle and for progressives in particular, it was not all that bad a year.

For one thing, there are about a dozen more progressives in Congress than there were before, making it harder for the establishment Democratic Party to continue its long practice of sidelining progressive proposals - not that they won't continue to try.

Progressives also won hundreds of local offices including, significantly, a number of races for sheriffs, district attorneys, and other criminal justice positions, including across the south.

It's an illustration of the growing - slowly growing but growing - progressive prosecutor movement, taking criminal justice reform, a publicly-popular and, 2020 showed, election-winning program, directly to the nuts and bolts of the system.

Not only in not so unexpected areas as California, but, the New York Times reports, in cities and counties in Geogia, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Colorado, and Ohio, overcoming the predictable resistance from police unions.

So we should, plagerizing Joe Hill, not mourn but organize. Think of 2020 as one of the 101 blows in the old parable of the stonemason. And carry it on.

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Eight: More unsatisfactory picks for Blahden administration

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Eight: More unsatisfactory picks for Blahden administration

Last time I said the emerging trend of who Joe Blahden wants in his administration is not encouraging.

I haven't had much reason to change that view. For one thing, I said that perhaps the worst potential pick was deficit hawk Bruce Reed for director of the Office of Management and Budget, calling his appointing someone like that to direct OMB in the midst of an economy-wrecking pandemic is just insane.

Well, Biden didn't nominate him. He nominated Neera Tanden - who was an assistant to Reed in the Clinton administration. Described as a Clinton loyalist with a penchant for demonizing progressives, Tanden supports something called "Medicare for America," a corporate-friendly alternative to Medicare for All and she has a history of supporting cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

He has picked Brian Deese as the director of the National Economic Council, a position which doesn't require confirmation. Deese is managing director and global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, the world’s largest financial backer for fossil fuel projects. Environmental activits have been trying to years to get Blackrock to divest from such projects. Desse's job has been to counteract them. Now he heads the National Economic Council.

I really have to wonder just how deep is Blahden's commitment to battling climate change. His climate plan is certainly a dramatic improvement on what we've seen from the federal government to date, improvement enough to get support from various environmental activists, but the real issue isn't if it's better but if it's good enough. I would say that anyone who pointedly refuses, as Blahden and Harris have both done, refuses to oppose fracking - the whole point of which is to continue reliance on fossil fuels - is not sufficiently serious. The pick of Deese only adds to those doubts.

As do reports that fossil fuel friendly Ernest Moniz, a supporter of nuclear power, is the leading contender for Secretary of Energy and Heidi Heitkamp, who has aligned herself with corporate agribusiness and fossil fuel interests, is top of the list for Secretary of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, Mike Morell is on the shortlist to head the CIA. Morell is an aggressive defender of the agency's use of torture and drone strikes and dismisses reports of civilian casualties from such strikes as propaganda.

It's bad enough the Sen. Ron Wyden calls such a nomination "a non-starter."

There is a bright spot: Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, has been tapped to head up the Department of Health and Human Services. While not a health professional, he does have administrative experience and an overall progressive record - and he has expressed support for Medicare for All. Which makes him a rather surprising choice, since Blahden's health care plan only calls for creating a so-called public option limited to low-income people, which makes it more of a tweak to Medicaid than any real expansion of access to health care.

We'll see who moves: Blahden or Becerra.

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Seven: Pennsylvania GOPpers fail (again!) to overturn election

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Seven: Pennsylvania GOPpers fail (again!) to overturn election

On December 8, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Pennsylvania GOPpers to block certification of the state's presidential vote. It was done in an unsigned one line order with no noted dissents. I can hear the justices saying "Do you get it now? Go away!"

I honestly expect the same treatment to be given to the utterly insane move by Texas to sue Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin at the Supreme Court on the grounds that changes they made to election procedures because of the pandemic were illegal. There simply is no way in hell that Texas has standing to bring this suit. [Update: It got exactly that treatment for exactly that reason.]

The question becomes what is the point of these suits. They know they can't win, they know in fact that even if they win they will still lose because enough states certified their results before the "safe harbor" date of December 8 to give Blahden more than the needed 270 electoral votes, after which those results are almost immune to challenge. So other than proving they are sufficiently wacko and sufficiently devoted to Tweetie-pie's personality cult to survive in the modern GOPper party, it's hard to see the point. Which means, in fact, that probably is the point.

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Six: COVID relief still stalled

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Five: COVID relief still stalled

I don't know what state this will be at when you see this; hopefully it will be a done deal. But history says be cautious, so I'll cover this now even though I hope it's already outdated.

GOPper Sen. Bill Cassidy of Lousiana predicted on December 6 that Tweetie-pie and Fishface McConnell will wind up backing a $908 billion COVID relief bill being worked out in bipartisan negotiations that went around the GOPper Senate leadership and White House.

It includes continuing the ban on evictions plus money for small business loans and state and local aid, along with renewing the federal unemployment insurance supplement but at a reduced rate of $300 per week. It would also direct funds to COVID vaccine distribution, schools, and the transportation sector.

The downsides, and they are significant, are it does not include any money to replicate the earlier $1200 direct payments despite their demonstrated effect at reducing COVID-driven poverty and does include a supposedly "temporary" federal liability shield for corporations fearful of being held responsible for their COVID-related cruelties and mismanagements - think, for example, of the people forced at the cost of losing their jobs to keep working in meatpacking plants without protective gear.

Those failures have lead to some, including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to say they might oppose the bill.

As I prepare this, Congress is apparently planning to pass a one-week spending bill to keep the government running, with the House voting on December 9. The idea is to provide more time to nail down the final language of the proposal, which is part of the omnibus spending package.

So you may know more than I do on this. A final thought for me here is that this is a case where I separate from Bernie and AOC: They are absolutely correct that this is not nearly enough, that there really does need to be at minimum a repeat of the $1200 check program, but with a large number of small businesses on the ropes and people on the verge of losing both the unemployment supplement and protection against eviction, I think the need is so great that we're at the point where we just take what we can get, come back for more, and hope for some surprisingly good news on January 5.

Updates: The one-week extension passed (of course). And Fishface says he won't let this package, which for Democrats is a compromise of a compromise of a compromise, come to the floor. Making the assumption that he is not completely devoid of humanity, the only reason I can think of is that he wants the economy to crash and burn, the better to bring down the Blahden presidency - but after saying that it occurs to me that both of those are probably true.

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Five: New US Citizenship Test slaps immigrants

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Five: New US Citizenship Test slaps immigrants

Here's a bit of an Outrage just to make your skin crawl. How low can they go, how cheap can they get?

The US Citizenship Test contains 128 questions. A study guide provides suggested correct answers for each. Of those questions, applicants are asked a randomly-selected 20, of which they must get 12 right to pass. Reasonable enough.

Two of the questions are "Who does a U.S. senator represent?" and "Who does a member of the House of Representatives represent?" For many years, the suggested answer has been "People in their state (or district)."

But the 2020 version of the test has changed that to "citizens" in their state or district. Which is wrong: Senators and Representatives represent all the people in their district, citizens or not. In fact, the House of Representatives website says it in so many words, declaring that “each representative is elected to a two-year term serving the people of a specific congressional district.”

But the guide says "citizens," so I can only assume if you answer "people" or "residents" or some such variation, you'll be regarded as having failed that question.

My gosh, even in such a small, cheap way they feel the need to take a slap at non-citizens. If they weren't in such powerful positions, they'd be truly pathetic.

(If you want to check, the questions are #31 and #33.)

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Four: SCOTUS says religious groups can spread COVID

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Four: SCOTUS says religious groups can spread COVID

I have several items I want to run through, with just maybe two or three minutes on most of them.

We start with the fact that the last week of November, the rightwing gained its first Bugs Bunny Barrett-driven victory at the Supreme Court, ruling 5-4 in favor of two religious organizations challenging New York state orders limiting the number of people attending their religious services due to the risk of spreading COVID.

The majority ruled in favor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, agreeing that the restrictions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment on the grounds that the regulations treated the houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities - "comparable," in the eyes of the Court, meaning a religious service with at least scores and in one notable case, a couple of thousand often maskless people in an enclosed space for an extended time is essentially the same as a commercial establishment featuring often masked customers coming and going with few remaining for an extended time and not packed together.

The details of the state regulations and the justices' opinions are largely irrelevant in the fact of two things that stand out:

One is that the case should have been dismissed as moot because the state had already significantly modified the orders at issue. It wasn't, on the grounds that the groups "remain under a constant threat" because the restrictions could always be reinstated, a "it can always come up again" standard under which a great many cases dismissed as moot should not have been. It wasn't found moot because the reactionary majority wanted to rule on it, wanted to smack down public health rules because of their ideology of pushing religion into the law.

New York Governor Andrew "I'll never be my dad" Cuomo said the Court didn't find the case to be moot because the majority wanted to make a statement that this is now a different Supreme Court. Which is a different way of saying the same thing: This was about ideology, not the law or the Constitution.

The other notable point is that the decision was scientifically illiterate. Not only because of the idiocy of the "comparable facility" claim but because at bottom it relies on the conviction that what happens in a congregation because of the failure to respect public health guidelines affects no one outside that community. That even if you want to bizarrely say that religious freedom means we have to allow for the spread of an infectious disease within a religious community, you still have to say that those people are incapable of spreading that disease outside it. Which is transparent nonsense to a degree that just stating it is sufficient refutation.

Perhaps dimly aware of that, the majority said "there are many other less restrictive rules that could be adopted" but failed to suggest any that are both enforceable and equally effective - actually, they failed to suggest any at all, turning unsupported speculation into fact, which I suppose is pretty run of the mill for the right wing.

The bottom line is that the result of this decision is that being a religious organization entitles you to risk the public health. As Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University said of the decision, people will die as a result.

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Three: Rhetoric of right wing becomes more violent as auto coup attempts fail

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Three: Rhetoric of right wing becomes more violent as auto coup attempts fail

That brings up a related issue: The rhetoric of the Tweetie-pie acolytes has been getting more and more violent and dangerous as his auto coup keeps failing in the courts, in the legislatures, and among the public.

(Sidebar: An "auto coup" is a term used for cases that instead of involving corruptly overthrowing a government to come into power, involves corruptly using the powers of government to remain in power.)

Tom Zawistowski, the executive director of the Portage County (Ohio) Tea Party took out a full-page ad in the Washington Times calling for Tweetie-pie to institute martial law to toss out the November election and stage a military-run election for federal candidates, stating that if there isn't martial law, "we will also have no other choice but to take matters into our own hands, and defend our rights on our own."

Among those who have effectively endorsed this call for military rule by re-tweeting it are retired general and former Tweetie-pie National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood.

A number of commenters noted that such folks are entirely okay with overturning the Constitution but insist that wearing a mask to limit the spread of COVID is "fascism."


- Tweetie-pie lawyer Joe diGenova has said former Homeland Security official Chris Krebs "should be taken out and shot" for saying the 2020 election was secure.
- Lin Wood tweeted that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger "are (not) sleeping well at night. Nor should they be. Justice is coming."
- Steve Bannon recently said Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray should be beheaded.
- On November 29, Chris Bedford, senior editor of the right-wing journal The Federalist, called Stacey Abrams "dangerous on many levels" for her advocacy of expanding options for voting.
- Of course there was when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was the target of a kidnapping and potential murder plot.

DiGenova is now saying that he was merely being rhetorical - of course he did, one he was called out on it. The "can't you take a joke" defense. But words have meaning. Words have impact.

On November 25, Rick Wiles, the senior pastor of the Flowing Streams Church in Florida, said "The Democrats, the news media - if the leftists, if scientists, professors have been working secretly with the Chinese Communist Party, then line 'em up against the wall and shoot them. That's what you do with them."

Do you really think he's be saying that if the idea had not been planted in his head by the drumbeat repetition of "fraud fraud fraud?"

What happens when someone finally does take this too far and someone gets shot and killed? What if the next plot against the next Gretchen Whitmer is not discovered in time? Will any of these people, will one of these people, take any responsibility?

No way in hell. Several years ago, I started a list of what I called "Rules for Right-wingers." It started out rather lightheartedly, but as it expanded over the years it got serious. The most recent version dates from 2017 and this is "Rule #12: Never admit responsibility. Whenever faced with the evil resulting from some other winger following or acting on your arguments, accuse those who point out that fact of 'politicizing a tragedy.' Never, never, never admit any responsibility for the meaning or impact of your own words."

I am dangerously close to saying that the very existence of these people - no, not the people, not the people, but the way of thinking, the thought pattern - its very existence is a moral outrage.

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Two: Police training document calls Antifa, BLM "terrorists" and civil right protesters "useful idiots"

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page Two: Police training document calls Antifa, BLM "terrorists" and civil right protesters "useful idiots"

There's an outfit in Indiana called the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, or ILEETA.

Among the guidance documents they have circulated to police departments is something called "Understanding Antifa and Urban Guerrilla Warfare," and it is chock-a-block with falsehoods and conspiracy theories about Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

It claims they have no intentions to negotiate but instead are "revolutionary movements whose aims are to overthrow the US government" while labeling those who participated in the nationwide protests for civil rights over the summer as "useful idiots" who were working for "hard-core, terrorist trained troops."

It even claims that BLM is "supposedly funded by China and that money is then donated to the Democratic Party."

In the face of complains, Harvey Hedden, ILEETA's executive director, defended the document, dismissing the concerns as "differences of opinion" only to later say it was the opinion of a single member even though the document says some of those making the observations there are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have witnessed these types of terrorist groups organizing" - and so, seemingly, are to be regarded as experts, not just people with opinions.

Despite his offhanded dismissal of objections, Hedden also says that the "just one person's opinion" document has been removed and replaced. I fear to think with what.

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page One: A Longer Look at Yemen

The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22, Page One: A Longer Look at Yemen

We start with one of our occasional features. It's called A Longer Look and the focus this time is on Yemen.

I have over the past 10 years or so brought up the war in Yemen, whose on and off civil war, which has been marked by some shifting alliances, is so complicated that even trustworthy sources, such as the BBC, the Guardian, al-Jazeera, and the Council on Foreign Relation's Global Conflicts Tracker don't agree on the roots of the current incarnation of the conflict beyond that it began with the 2014 overthrow of the government of 33-year strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh in favor of his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, creating an opening for Houthi rebels to secure the northern province of Saada and thereafter seize the nation's capital of Sanaa.

What every one can agree on, however, is that since Saudi Arabia's intervention in 2015 the civil war has become essentially a proxy war between the Saudis, with the United Arab Emirates as a minor partner, on the one hand supporting Hadi's government and Iran on the other supporting the Houthi rebels. In other words, it's turned into a regional power struggle fought out on the bodies of Yemenis.

From the start, the US has cast its lot with the Saudis, first through US drone strikes supposedly aimed at terrorism that actually began under George Bushleague but increased dramatically during the administration of The Amazing Mr. O, and later through the more direct involvement of continuing to sell arms and supply intelligence to Saudi Arabia even as it became undeniable that the Saudis were committing war crimes in Yemen, including blockading ports, blocking entry of food, medical supplies, and other humanitarian assistance, and engaging in a campaign of bombing civilian targets, including hospitals, markets, and residential areas.

As a result, Yemen is in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. A 2018 report from Save the Children estimated that 85,000 Yemeni children had already starved to death and this October the UN reported that 100,000 children in southern Yemen alone could die of acute malnutrition if urgent humanitarian aid is not available.

How bad is it?

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification is a multinational project designed to present a common global scale for classifying the severity and magnitude of food insecurity and malnutrition.

So how bad is it? The first map on the right is its measure of current food insecurity in Yemen. Yellow means stressed; orange means crisis; red means emergency.

The second one is its map of projected food insecurity for the first half of 2021.

It's very bad - and it's getting worse.

And now COVID-19 has hit Yemen and is spreading unchecked in a country marked by a decimated health care infrastructure and disrupted access to clean water, sanitary systems, sufficient nutrition, and adequate shelter.

Even before COVID, the nature of the Saudi-led war had become so obvious and outrageous that in April 2019 Congress actually invoked the War Powers Act, trying to put an end to US involvement. Tweetie-pie vetoed it and there wasn't enough support to override it.

Since then, there have been several attempts to block arms sales to the Saudis; support for that has increased each time, but not yet enough to get it through.

Now there could be some hope: Joe Blahden, who was something of a dove in the Amazing Mr. O's White House, having opposed the war in Libya and the surge in Afghanistan, is heading into office having pledged to end unauthorized US participation in the war in Yemen. The word "unauthorized" leaves a lot of wiggle room: Does it actually mean an end to arms sales plus an end to the provision of logistical support, targeting assistance, spare parts, and intelligence? Or does it just mean wanting Congress to sign off on what's already being done?

We'll have to see but at least now there is more reason to think we can do this, that we can put an end to our part in this monstrosity, more hope than we've had so far. (In fairness, I'll note that some of those other forms of assistance, particularly logistical support, have already been cut back under pressure from Congress and the public.)

Speaking of now, not to be denied his literal pound of flesh, a week after the election, when any sane person knew he had lost, Tweetie-pie announced an intention to sell $23 billion in advanced weaponry to the Saudi ally in the war, the United Arab Emirates, including up to 50 F-35s. They are rushing to make it a done dealbefore January 20, apparently concerned that any such sale would be questioned by a Blahden administration - a concern given weight by the fact that a group of 29 arms control and human rights groups have condemned the sale, which would help give Blahden political cover to cancel it if it is done.

What may be worse is that Secretary of State Mike Pompous is reportedly soon going to classify the Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, which is likely simply to make matters worse by further restricting international aid efforts out of fear of being sanctioned by the US and driving up the already-unaffordable prices for food and other basic necessities, particularly in Houthi-controlled areas, which now encompass about 70% of Yemen's population.

Aid groups might try to find a work-around, but less altruistic institutions such as banks and shipping lines, a "terrorist" designation would probably deter anykind of work in Yemen.

Dave Harden, a former top official at the US Agency for International Development, believes the move could cause “a full collapse of the economy and complete devaluation of the currency” while effectively ending imports of food and vital sanitation products.

But the Tweetie-pie gangsters just don't care because labeling the Houthis terrorists will also be a poke in the eye to Iran, which, again, supports the Houthis and the hope is that this will anger Iran enough to be a hindrance to Blahden's intent to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal while being politically difficult for Blahden to reverse for fear of being called "soft on Iran."

Frankly, he should just realize he's going to be called that no matter what he does and just go ahead and do the right thing: Withdraw all support from the Saudis (and their allies) about Yemen; if the arms deal with the UAE has been finalized, cancel it; call for a ceasefire; demand that humanitarian assistance be allowed in the country and contribute toward that aid; if the Houthis have been designated as terrorists either revoke it or at the least assure aid workers they will experience no repercussions from the US; and acknowledge Congress's Constitutional authority in matters of war and peace - the latter of which I think will be the hardest one for us to achieve.

Look, you know how I feel about Joe Blahden: I greeted his election not with enthusiasm but with relief. But there are some ways in which he can be more than just "not Tweetie-pie," he can even be pretty good if the deeds live up to the words. This could be one of those ways. For the sake of honor and humanity and tens of millions of Yemenis, I hope it will be.

027 The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22


027 The Erickson Report for December 9 to 22

This time:

A Longer Look at Yemen

Police training document calls Antifa, BLM "terrorists" and civil right protesters "useful idiots"

Rhetoric of right wing becomes more violent as auto coup attempts fail

SCOTUS says religious groups can spread COVID

New US Citizenship Test slaps immigrants

COVID relief still stalled

Pennsylvania GOPpers fail (again!) to overturn election

More unsatisfactory picks for Blahden administration

Some good election news for progressives, including in the "progressive prosecutor movement"

Friday, November 27, 2020

026 The Erickson Report for November 25 to December 8, Page 3: A last thought

The Erickson Report for November 25 to December 8, Page 3: A last thought

Okay, I have just a minute left,  just enough time to get to one of those pieces of news I skipped to tell the Thanksgiving story.

According to a new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll from mid-November, over half of all Republicans believe Tweetie-pie "rightfully won" the US election but that it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud, while a Monmouth University Poll from the same time frame said that 32% of all voters and 77% of GOPpers say Blahden only won due to fraud.

Listen Up, people! Getting Blahden into the White House does not mean it's over and we have to be prepared for that. Ronald Reagan came into office with less than 51% of the vote and claimed a mandate. George Bush the Lesser came into office off a 530-vote win in one state and claimed a mandate despite losing the popular vote. Tweetie-pie came into office claiming a mandate despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million.

It is vital that Joe Blahden come into office claiming a mandate! But I greatly fear that instead he will come into office pledging to make nice with Fishface McConnell. That will not work. So I fear that, as always, we are on our own.

026 The Erickson Report for November 25 to December 8, Page 2: Listen Up!

The Erickson Report for November 25 to December 8, Page 2: Listen Up!

I only have a few minutes left and I'm going to spend them expanding on a rant from last time on the efforts of the establishment Democratic Party to use progressives for voter turnout but otherwise dismiss them.

And just to be clear: The term "establishment Democratic Party" refers to the DNC, the party leadership in the House and Senate, and the party's Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees

Okay. I said last time that the establishment Dem Par was looking to blame progressives and progressive causes for the party's down-ballot failures - that is, in the House and Senate - rather than even considering their own roles. That hasn't let up, it wasn't just that one notorious post-election conference call. AP has joined the fray with an article which could barely get past one tepid criticism of party strategy before rushing on blame Medicare for All and the Green New Deal and criticisms of police racism and violence.

You want to know how unpopular Medicare for All is? According to a November 3 exit poll by Fox News, 72% of voters favored a "change to a government-run health care plan." 112 co-sponsors of Medicare for All were on the ballot in November. All of them won.

You want to know how unpopular the Green New Deal is? That same Fox poll found 70% of voters supporting “increasing government spending on green and renewable energy.” There were 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal on the ballot in November. 97 of them won.

Bernie Sanders said it well:

The lesson is not to abandon popular policies like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, living wage jobs, criminal justice reform and universal child care, but to enact an agenda that speaks to the economic desperation being felt by the working class - Black, white, Latino, Asian American and Native American.

That is a desperation to which the establishment Democratic Party did not speak in its campaign. Yes, I know all about the Heroes Act and I know all about the intransigence of Fishface McConnell and the rest. But the establishment Democratic party figured that the public distaste for Tweetie-pie so great that laying real hardball on COVID economic relief was a good political course. They were wrong. And instead of recognizing their failing to make that very GOPper intransigence a centerpiece of their campaign, their answer is to blame progressives - and to do as much as they can to shut them out from decision-making roles.

Which brings me to what really prompted this renewed rant. News is emerging of who Joe Blahden wants in his administration and the trend is not encouraging.

Michael McCabe is a former consultant to DuPont who lead its successful campaign to head off regulation of a highly toxic chemical called PFOA. He's been appointed by the Blahden transition to its review team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep Cedric Richmond is joining the administration as a senior adviser to serve as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists. Richmond is a darling of the oil and gas industries, having gotten more donations from them than nearly any other Democrat.

Blahden is nominating Antony Blinken as secretary of state. Blinken supported the invasion of Iraq and the assault on Libya and has spent his recent years as a partner in a consulting firm with a secret client list drawn from the tech, finance, and arms industries.

A leading candidate for defense secretary is Michèle Flournoy, Blinken's partner in that consulting firm. Among his other achievement, Flournoy supported the wars in Iraq and Libya, thought Obama wasn't tough enough on Syria, and helped craft the surge in Afghanistan.

Those two are likely why defense executives have been boasting about their close relationship with Biden and expressing confidence that there will not be much change in Pentagon policy.

Perhaps worst of all, it's reported that Blahden is considering Bruce Reed for director of the Office of Management and Budget. Reed is a deficit hawk who was a lead architect of the destructive 1996 welfare "reform" law and was executive director of the Obama-appointed Bowles-Simpson Commission, which became known as the Cat Food Commission because its central proposal was to slash Social Security. Appointing someone like that to direct OMB in the midst of an economy-wrecking pandemic is just insane.

So far, I am neither impressed nor encouraged.

But in closing I will say there is one thing on which I agree with the critics of progressives: The slogan "defund the police" - which has got to be the worst political slogan in the history of campaigning. My central principle for effective communication is that what you say is not as important as what the other person hears. On that score, "defund the police" is a miserable, abject failure. Not only does it not express what supporters want it to, it positively invites people to misunderstand it.

The idea of "defund the police" in a nutshell is to stop expecting police to deal with things for which they have neither the training nor the competence- such as mental health crises and drug issues - cases where their intervention so often leads to tragedy, and instead direct those resources to agencies and personnel which do have the training and competence. But if people hear "defund the police," they think - reasonably - that you want to zero out the budgets, to dispense with police altogether. An effective slogan depends on a previously-existing, widespread understanding of its meaning. "Defund the police" doesn't have that - which is why it's a failure.

I don't have a devastatingly better alternative, but I will say that my preference would be for "demilitarize the police" which I think would not only cover what "defund the police" means to address, it would expand on it and without making it so easy to misunderstand or willfully distort.

Footnotes to the Thanksgiving story

Footnotes to the Thanksgiving story 

A few quick sidebars for which there was not time in the show, a few details surrounding that first year you might think worth noting.

- You often hear the Mayflower referred to as a "small" ship. To our eyes it is, but at 180 tun, it was somewhat larger than an average merchant ship of the period, which went around 140-160 tun, a tun being a large cask that became used as a standard measure of the capacity of a ship's hold.

- You also often hear it said the passengers came for "religious freedom." They did not. Not only did they not believe in religious freedom as we understand the term, "freedom" being equated with anarchy, to the degree they sought what they would call "liberty of conscience," those who had been to Holland - which was actually a minority of those on the Mayflower - had it there. In fact, that's why they went to Holland in the first place: Because they refused to be part of "the King's Church" (the Church of England), they were held to be criminals.. Unfortunately for them, they not only found such liberty there, they also found poverty of a degree that threatened to fracture their community. That's why they came to this continent.

- It has also been asserted that the first winter was marked by starvation; I've even heard it claimed that they all would have starved to death but for the corn they stole from a cache while exploring Cape Cod. Again, not true - or, more exactly, half true. The deaths came from disease, likely pneumonia, spread by the necessity of living in close quarters until housing could be built. Starvation was not an issue: The ship's stores provided food for the winter, which could be supplemented by fishing. What is true is that they stole some corn, but that was for seed corn for the following spring, which makes it rather silly to imagine it was a quantity sufficient to feed the entire group for the winter. And in fairness it must be noted that they made good for what they took when they were able to contact those natives - the Nauset - after the winter was over.

- Finally, they were not "greeted by the indigenous people." In fact, they didn't speak to a native until March and that was to Samoset, an Abenaki from what's now Maine. It wasn't until a couple of weeks after that when they first spoke to a local (Squanto, aka Tisquantum).

026 The Erickson Report for November 25 to December 8, Page 1: The "First Thanksgiving"

The Erickson Report for November 25 to December 8, Page 1: The "First Thanksgiving"

There is a great deal of news I will not get to this time out because I decided that, what with 2020 being how it's been and all, we could use a time out for what is for us a sort of a holiday tradition.

This show will be first on just before Thanksgiving, so it seemed the right time to engage in that tradition, which is to say gather 'round, kiddies, I'm going to tell you the real story, the based-on-actual-historical-sources story, of the "First Thanksgiving."

By which, of course, I mean the event that occurred in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts in the fall of 1621 which is the basis of our now-traditional Thanksgiving holiday.

One of the reasons I do this almost every year is that it is truly amazing just how much misinformation, mythology, and general muddle-headedness there is out there on this topic. In fact, it seems that what can fairly be called revisionist history about the events have become almost as traditional as turkey and pumpkin pie.

I like to try to bring some hard historical reality to the discussion.

So to start our Thanksgiving tale, consider this:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.

At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

And though it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

That comes from a letter dated December 11, 1621. It was written to an otherwise-unidentified "loving and old friend" in England by Edward Winslow, a Mayflower passenger and a leader in the early years of the colony. 

By the way, the portrait of Edward Winslow seen below was done in 1651, 30 years later, after he had returned to England. It is the only verified picture of a Mayflower passenger known to exist.

As for the rest of them, we have no idea what they looked like beyond the traditional description of Myles Standish as short with red hair, a description given some backing by the fact that in a book called The New English Canaan, a nasty satire of the Plimoth settlement written in 1637 by Thomas Morton, Standish is identified by the name "Captain Shrimpe."

Winslow's letter was contained in a book published in England in 1622 under the rather ponderous title of A Relation or Journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certain English Adventurers both Merchants and others.

The book is popularly known today by the less cumbersome name of Mourt's Relation and consists of eyewitness accounts of various events during the first year of the settlement.

Here's why that letter is important here: It is the only contemporaneous account of what we know as the "First Thanksgiving" which is known to exist. The only other even near-contemporaneous account comes from William Bradford, long-time governor of the settlement, who wrote about it in his journal at least 10 to 12 years later. Even there he just sort of brushes by it, endorsing Winslow by referring to "not feigned but true reports." Quoting:

They now began to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses against the winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.
 For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took in good store, of which every family had its portion.

All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.

Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so large of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
That's it. That's all of it. That's what the entire "First Thanksgiving" story is built on. Everything else is speculation, interpretation, some questionable third- and fourth-hand accounts, and guesswork, some of it informed, all too much of it not.

Edward Winslow
Some things we can tell from the accounts: For one thing, based on other references in those same sources, we know that the event took place after September 18 and before November 9. Mostly likely, it was in late September or the beginning of October, as that would have been shortly after harvest.

In considering the event, the first thing to realize is that this was not a "thanksgiving." To someone of the period, a thanksgiving was a religious occasion, a day set aside for prayer to give thanks to God for some special and unexpected blessing.

The first public day of thanksgiving in the town actually came in the summer of 1623: A six-week crop-threatening drought had lead to a day of "humiliation," a day of fasting and prayer to beg forgiveness for whatever they had done to cause God to bring this on them. Literally that same evening, the rains came - and not a storm, a gentle soaking rain which saved the crops and so a day of thanksgiving seemed appropriate.

So no, this was not a thanksgiving. Such days would occur occasionally as the cause arose; to plan for one in advance, much less to plan for one every year as we do now, would be regarded as a gross presumption on God's will and intentions.

What this was instead was a very traditional English harvest feast, a celebration of a good harvest to which it was customary to invite those who had been helpful to you over the course of the year  - which is surely why the natives were there: They had indeed been helpful, so they were invited. True, the settlers didn't have a good harvest - note that Bradford describes it as "small" - but they had a harvest. That surely raised everyone's spirits: It indicated they were going to make it. Reason enough for a celebration, especially considering what they had been through to get to that point, including the death by disease - probably pneumonia - of half their numbers in the first months.

I want to make a quick aside to explain a rather subtle point more clearly: Europeans of the 17th century - especially the more religiously-conservative sorts, such as those that lead the Plimoth (as it was often spelled at the time) settlement - did not make the sort of clear distinctions between what is "religious" and what is "secular" that we do today. The sense of, a feeling of, an awareness of, the "hand of God" or the "will of God" was much more central to their lives than it is to the vast majority of us now.

What that means here is that the 1621 harvest feast would surely have included prayers of thanks to God and perhaps a sermon from their religious leader, Elder William Brewster, as significant features of the event, just as prayer would have been a frequent feature of their everyday lives, from meals to musket drills to mucking about in their fields, tending the crops.

However, they would not have regarded this as "a day of thanksgiving" as they understood the term: While the prayers would have been significant features of the event, they would not have been the central features; not the purpose, not the point, not the driver behind it. Celebration was, feasting was.

Put another way, had we been able to witness the 1621 feast, to our modern eyes there would very likely have been more than enough praying, giving thanks, and singing of psalms and hymns to make it look like a religious or at least religiously-inspired event, but to a person of the 17th century it would have looked about as (for lack of a better term) secular as such a thing got.

Anyway, back to our story. As for the eternal question of what they ate, we can confident they had fowl such as duck or goose (as the governor "sent four men on fowling" in preparation) and yes, quite possibly turkey ("of which they took many," Bradford said). They very likely also had fish, specifically cod and bass, which are mentioned in the sources, and quite possibly deer.

Another aside: I say "quite possibly" to raise the issue of using historical sources without running too far ahead of them, a sin of which too many of the revisionist accounts are guilty, making too much out of too little. Even though Winslow says the natives "went out and killed five deer," he also says "which they bestowed on our governor" - that being William Bradford - "and upon the captain" - that being Myles Standish - "and others." In other words, they were given to various leaders of the community, not to the community as a whole. More to the point, we can't tell if those deer were brought soon enough to be butchered, dressed, cooked, and presented as part of the feast or if they were brought afterward as a sort of thank you, a reciprocal gift in return for having been "feasted" for three days.

Bradford's mention of venison doesn't resolve things because in the period, "venison" meant "hunted meat," which obviously includes deer but isn't limited to it. So while they quite probably had deer, either from the natives or their own hunting or both, we can't say it definitively.

Getting back to the menu, lobster and other shellfish is another real possibility; elsewhere in the letter that I quoted Winslow mentions that they are abundant in the area - as are eels, of which, he claims, they could take "a hogshead in a night." If you think "eels, eew," know that an English person of the period would have responded "They're just another sort of fish." (A hogshead is a cask holding about 63 gallons of liquid. Yeah, Winslow was likely exaggerating; he was like that.)

Beyond that, we can reasonably argue for some others foods such as a sort of pie made from squash from their gardens, sweetened with dried fruit which they would have brought with them from England, salad from other stuff from their gardens, and a sort of coarse corn bread.

Water would have been the major and perhaps the only beverage: Their supply of barley would be limited (Winslow says the "English grains," which would mean such as wheat, rye, and oats as well as barley, "grew indifferent good") and there is no mention of hops. No hops, no beer; no much barley, not much ale. Even if they did have some barley, there may well would not have been enough time for brewing since harvest. And while they did bring beer with them on the voyage, it is highly unlikely that there was any significant amount of that left nearly a year later. So they might have had a little ale or even maybe a little wine brought from England and reserved for a special occasion, but again is was likely mostly, and possibly only, water.

So that is pretty much it, pretty much everything we know or can reasonably assume about the event itself. Not much to build a whole mythology on, is it?

Even so, it drove the pap we got fed as children, marked by images of picnic tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pies surrounded by natives dressed like they just came from the great plains and smiling "Pilgrims" dressed in the fashions of the 1690s.

And that same sparseness of detail - and one of the reasons I go through this almost every year - is probably a good part of the reason the event provides so much latitude to those who want to replace the childhood (and childish) image of noble settlers and savage natives with one of noble natives and savage settlers, who every year, regular as clockwork, treat us to the historical revisionism that has, again, become as traditional as turkey and cranberry sauce.

In place of the happy talk mythologies of peace, love, and harmony we were spoon-fed as children we find people snarling out dark tales of drunken, murderous, bloodthirsty settlers facing off with natives "crashing the party" at the feast and doing it in such numbers because Massasoit feared he'd be kidnapped or killed otherwise. It is a vision that, as much as the earlier one, is an attempt to overwrite history with ideology. It is, in other words, pure bunk.

In point of historical fact, relations between Plymouth and the neighboring natives were reasonably good for several decades. There were stresses and strains and disruptions, yes, but for the most part they managed to keep intact the peace agreement-mutual defense pact they made in the spring of 1621.

Things gradually got worse and I won't go into all the reasons why but the biggest two were population pressure and disputes over land that were rooted in vast cultural differences between the natives and the English.

For one specific, the native culture had no concept of land ownership. Not just they didn't own the land, or that everyone owned the land, or the Great Spirit owned the land; no, the idea of land as something you could possess just didn't exist. To own something, for the natives, meant you could pick it up and carry it away with you. How could you own something if you have to leave it behind anytime you go anywhere? Which makes real sense, especially for a semi-nomadic people who live in one area for part of the year and another area the rest of the year.

But for the settlers, for any European, land ownership, which by its nature includes the concept of exclusive use, was an everyday notion. That cultural chasm was a source of repeated conflict.

The peace finally, irrevocably, completely broke down - but that was in 1675, more than 50 years after the so-called "First Thanksgiving." The point here is that at that time, in the fall of 1621, native-settler relations were good.

In fact, the very next sentences of the Winslow letter I quoted above are these:
We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them.
Winslow also says that all the other native leaders in the vicinity have made peace with Plymouth on the same terms as Massasoit, as a result of which, he asserts, "there is now great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly." He goes on to say that:
We for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of God, yet very trusty, quick of apprehension, ripe-witted, just.
Just to be certain you know, "trusty" means trustworthy, not trusting, and "quick of apprehension" does not mean quick to be apprehensive. It means quick to understand, quick to grasp the meaning of something.

As for "religion," in his later book Good News from New England Winslow says "therein I erred" and goes on the describe the native religion, as least as he understands it.

That does not sound either like bloodthirsty settlers eager to kill natives or like natives who feared contact with those same settlers or felt they had to display mass force to avoid being kidnapped or killed.

If you're still not convinced, consider that in June 1621, three or four months earlier, the town felt it necessary to send a message to Massasoit requesting that he restrain his people from coming to the settlement in such numbers. This is from Mourt's Relation, this is the heart of the message they sent to Massasoit:
But whereas his people came very often, and very many together unto us, bringing for the most part their wives and children with them, they were welcome; yet we being but strangers as yet at Patuxet, alias New Plymouth, and not knowing how our corn might prosper, we could no longer give them such entertainment as we had done, and as we desired still to do.
That's how "afraid" the natives were of the settlers, so "afraid" the town had to ask them not to come around so much.

Assigning the role of angel or demon to either side is trash: Neither of these peoples were either. Neither were saints, neither were devils.

So I reject the revisionist history, indeed I resent the revisionist history. I resent it first because it’s lousy history. It's based on ideology, not information; it looks to satisfy demands of politics, not of scholarship, and it is every bit as full of false tales and mythology as the nonsense and pap that we got fed as schoolchildren.

Plymouth in the fall of 1621 genuinely was a scene of peaceful and friendly relations, of good feeling, between English settlers and their nearest native neighbors. The "First Thanksgiving" was a moment of celebration when everyone on both sides, even if they were still wary each of the other, believed that yes, this was going to work out.

That wasn’t going to happen; it was a false hope, even a foolish hope. It was brief enough moment, lasting by even a generous understanding no more than a few decades, and a rare enough moment in our nation's history of cruelty toward and genocide of the native peoples of this continent such that while "the First Thanksgiving" shouldn't be a source of happily-ever-after "why can't we all just get along" fairy stories, neither is there any need to co-opt it into the service of ideology-driven revisionism.

Because that moment of hope did exist. And frankly, I resent the attempts to strip away that one moment of hope in pursuit of a modern political agenda.

I remember a friend of mine some years ago talking about “the urge to find angelic forces in the world,” that is, the seeming need many of us have to fix on some group, some movement, some something that we can convince ourselves is utterly pure in its motives and behavior. In our attempts to find some better balance in our understanding of what was done to the natives of North America, the cruelties inflicted on them, the racism and bigotry which targeted them, too many of us in considering the “Pilgrims” of Plymouth have chosen to simply swap one mythology for a perhaps more satisfying but equally false one.

Balance, it seems, is still a long way off.

So anyway, I hope you enjoyed your Turkey Day, I hope you had time to spend with your family or friends - while staying safe, staying in your bubble - and I hope you can understand why I celebrate the day as an expression less of thankfulness for the past (or even the present) than as an expression of hope for the future. That hope, too, may prove as foolish as that of 1621, indeed these days I often think it is - but the blunt fact is, hope is also the one absolute, indispensable requirement for any effort to make that future a better one.

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');