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Jonathan Turley: Let us celebrate nonconformists on Thanksgiving

Jonathan Turley: Let us celebrate nonconformists on Thanksgiving
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Thanksgiving dinners around the nation this year could come with a side of shame. College newspapers have called on students to confront their racist relatives, and Abigail Adams of Indiana University of Pennsylvania gave students instructions for how to “decolonize” Thanksgiving. Pundit Jason Johnson declared this holiday to be called “Colonizer Christmas,” while others have insisted it be called “Thankstaking.”

Despite the growing attacks on the Pilgrims, they embodied one defining character of our country as people who refused to conform. The problem with the Pilgrims is not that they came to these shores but that now, four centuries later, Europe seems to have followed them with the exact types of restrictions that the Pilgrims fled, which could find support from some critical figures of the next presidential administration.

Such objections to Thanksgiving could be one reason there has been little celebration for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims arriving in November 1620 at what is now Cape Cod out in Massachusetts. Indeed, most people seem unaware of the anniversary, which has been turned into some “event that must not be named” unless it was to denounce it.

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There is no doubt that the colonization of our nation led to great atrocities against the native population as well as disease and displacement. It is an indelible and shameful part of our history. Yet in this shrill debate, there is little room for a complete understanding of the Pilgrims or who they were. Critics of the holiday often push their own simplistic stereotypes over the Pilgrims while they denounce 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.”

The Pilgrims in reality were extraordinary individuals with an inspiring tale. They were under the persecuted minority known as the English Separatist Church. Hounded out of England, they made it over to the Netherlands to pursue freedom of faith. They were eventually known as “nonconformists” for refusing to adhere to orthodoxy. They later sailed aboard a ship called the Mayflower to search for freedom in the New World. Indeed, their great Mayflower Compact was the first articulation of government of the people and a new “civil body politic” in this hemisphere of earth.

The fact that the first settlers were nonconformists holds special meaning for civil libertarians. Our country was shaped by nonconformists since the Pilgrims made landfall. After playing a critical role with our independence, Thomas Paine irritated the framers with his words, including John Adams, who called him a “crapulous mass.” Nonconformists like Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony demanded full rights for women despite getting jailed and harassed. Nonconformists like Martin Luther King demanded all those same rights for African Americans. Nonconformists like Cesar Chavez did so for migrants, and Harvey Milk did so for homosexuals.

They are why Confucius observed, “A reasonable man can adjust himself to the world. An unreasonable man wants the world to adjust itself to him. So all progress is made by unreasonable people.” The Pilgrims refused to be silenced in order to advocate for their values. They show the progress over history produced by unreasonable nonconformists.

Europe has never widely embraced such nonconformity, notably the type of speech protections which define our constitutional system. Speech still has been rolled back in countries like Germany, England, and France. Four centuries later, Europe now seems to be landing here in full force. Several Democrats and liberal academics call for censorship and the regulation of speech to achieve greater social harmony. The Pilgrims would be the first to warn that harmony for some is conformity for others.

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The next administration could cut back speech. Joe Biden has demanded that technology companies block those people, including Donald Trump, who spread “disinformation” or undermine society. Advocates for speech controls often employ Orwellian terms, such as Richard Blumenthal, who has called for “robust content modification” on the internet. The Pilgrims would have had no difficulty understanding the ramifications of any rules because they were “robustly modified” out from Europe.

One of the more chilling cases of this trend is Richard Stengel, the man selected to lead the transition team on media agencies and policies. He wrote a Washington Post  column last year that denounced speech as a threat to harmony. He failed 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 am all for protecting thought that we hate, but not speech that incites hate,” Stengel argued.

Stengel showed frustration with his answer for Arab diplomats who asked why we tolerate people who curse religion. “Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they had asked me, would you ever want to protect that? It was a fair problem. The First Amendment protects thought that we hate, but it should not protect hateful speech which can cause violence by one group against another,” he wrote.

Stengel was referring to Arab diplomats from an area of the world where people are flogged and even executed for blasphemy. Yet he was unable to give a reason why we would tolerate such freedom of speech. People cannot be forced to conform in the interests of harmony. His view could convince one to board a ship in search of the New World.

The problem is that we are out of places to discover. So this Thanksgiving, I will celebrate the Pilgrims and all nonconformists. One of my students is even making an orange duck in the ultimate act of nonconformity. Despite my culinary traditions, I will even embrace an orange duck as a dish fit for the continued progress toward unabashed nonconformity.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.