Despite today’s growing attacks on the Pilgrims, they embodied a key defining character of this country as people who refused to conform. The problem with the Pilgrims is not that they came to these shores but that, 400 years later, Europe seems to have followed them with the very types of restrictions that the Pilgrims fled — restrictions which may find support from some key figures of the next presidential administration.
Such objections to Thanksgiving may explain why there has been little celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims arriving in November 1620 at what is now Cape Cod, Mass. Indeed, most people seem unaware of the anniversary, which has been “Voldemorted” into some “event that must not be named” — except to denounce it.
There is no question that the colonization of America led to great atrocities against the native population, as well as disease and displacement. It is an indelible, shameful part of our history. Yet in this shrill debate, there is little room for a full understanding of the Pilgrims or who they were. Indeed, critics of the holiday often push their own simplistic stereotypes of the Pilgrims while denouncing similar stereotypes in modern life. Johnson, for instance, insists the Pilgrims should not be viewed as victims seeking religious freedom but as “part of a commercial venture.”
In reality, the Pilgrims were extraordinary individuals with an inspiring tale. They were part of a persecuted Puritan minority known as the English Separatist Church. Hounded out of England under King James VI, they first went to the Netherlands to pursue freedom of faith and speech; they became known as the “nonconformists” for refusing to adhere to the approved orthodoxy of the English Church. They eventually sailed aboard a ship, the Mayflower, to seek freedom in the New World. Their Mayflower Compact was the hemisphere’s first articulation of self-government and a new “civil body politic.”
The fact that the first settlers were known as “nonconformists” carries special meaning for civil libertarians. Our nation has been shaped by nonconformists since the Pilgrims made landfall. After playing a critical role in our independence, Thomas Paine irritated the Framers with his critiques, including John Adams, who called him “a crapulous mass.” Nonconformists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony demanded full rights for women, despite being jailed and harassed. Nonconformists like Martin Luther King demanded full rights for African Americans, and nonconformists like Cesar Estrada Chavez did so for migrant populations and Harvey Milk did so for homosexuals.
They are why Confucius observed: “A reasonable man adjusts himself to the world. An unreasonable man expects the world to adjust itself to him. Therefore, all progress is made by unreasonable people.” The Pilgrims were unreasonable people who refused to be silenced, refused to be deterred in advocating for their values — and, in so doing, they reflect the progress produced by unreasonable nonconformists throughout history.
Europe, in contrast, has never widely embraced such nonconformity, notably the type of robust free-speech protections that define our constitutional system. Indeed, free speech still is being dramatically rolled back in countries like Germany, France and England. Now, four centuries later, Europe seems to be landing here in full force. Many liberal academics and Democratic politicians openly call for censorship and the regulation of free speech to achieve greater social harmony. The Pilgrims would be the first to warn that harmony for some is conformity for others.
The incoming administration is shaping up to be one of the most anti-free speech governments in decades. Joe Biden has demanded that Big Tech companies block those, including Donald Trump, who in his view spread “disinformation” or undermine society. Advocates for speech controls often employ Orwellian terms, like Richard Blumenthal demanding “robust content modification” on the internet. The Pilgrims would have had no difficulty recognizing what that means: They themselves were “robustly modified” out of Europe.
One of the more chilling examples of this trend is the man selected to head Biden’s transition team on media agencies and policies — Richard Stengel, one of the leading anti-free speech voices in the country. Last year, Stengel wrote a Washington Post column that denounced free speech as a threat to social and political harmony. He struggled to convince readers that what they need is less freedom: “All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting ‘thought that we hate,’ but not speech that incites hate.”
In his column, Stengel showed frustration in not being able to answer Arab diplomats who asked why we tolerate people who blaspheme religion: “Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that? It’s a fair question. Yes, the First Amendment protects the ‘thought that we hate,’ but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another.”
So Stengel was referring to diplomats from a part of the world where people are flogged and even executed for blaspheming religion and yet, he was unable to explain why we would tolerate such free speech. Stengel just can’t understand why people cannot be forced to conform in the interests of harmony. His view is enough to persuade you to board a leaky wooden ship in search of a new world.
The problem is that we're all out of new worlds to discover. So this Thanksgiving, I will celebrate the Pilgrims and all other nonconformists. One of my students is even making duck a l’orange in the ultimate act of nonconformity. Despite my culinary traditionalist impulses, I will even embrace an orange duck as a dish fit for the continued “Pilgrim’s Progress” toward unapologetic nonconformity.