What makes a culture? The answer is similarities. A culture forms organically and a people become socially cohesive when they have tangible things in common. This can range from the grand, like a shared religion, sense of place, or language, to the more concrete, like music, food, and clothing. It can also include perceptions of the past, such as holidays, stories, and a reverence for certain figures.
One of these larger-than-life figures here in America is Christopher Columbus. The 15th-century voyager was a product of the Age of Exploration, when European sailors crossed the oceans in search of trade routes. Columbus was the first of these explorers to reach the outer shores of North America, landing in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492.
Saying Columbus discovered America is a misnomer. He was preceded by the Viking Leif Erikson almost four centuries prior, and there were of course millions of people already living on the two continents. But Columbus’ voyage and landing signified the introduction of the Western tradition to the Americas. The year 1492 acted as a fulcrum, a permanent turning point in the relations of the world. It is certainly not the start of history in America, but it is the start of Western history in America and everything that has been birthed from it since.
Before becoming a federal holiday in the United States in 1937, Columbus Day was celebrated widely and passionately. It was celebrated by those who viewed Western exploration as a good thing, a necessary thing that led to the creation of the United States and the world we know today. But in recent decades it has come under fire from those who perhaps don’t view the introduction of the Western tradition to the Americas as a positive.
These attacks have come from two groups: the progressive left and the descendants of Native Americans. To them, Columbus is a racist, a rapist, and a genocidal slave master; the evils of imperialism made flesh. The modern cultural left, influenced by the legacy of the Frankfurt School, sees reverence for the figures of Western history as one more brick to be removed in a systematic dismantling. Those of indigenous heritage have a more legitimate case. Native Americans aren’t part of the historic American nation. Not granted citizenship until 1924, natives were before that viewed as separate peoples with wholly distinct cultures. They have no reason to love Christopher Columbus, which has given them common cause with the left.
I recently witnessed one of these alliances of convenience at George Mason University where I attend school. In the fall of 2015, my sophomore year, a resolution began circulating through student government. It was a resolution to urge the University to reconstitute Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or, to quote a promotional poster, “abolish Columbus Day.” It was called Resolution 13.
After passing the SG Diversity Committee with 11 votes in favor and 1 abstention, Resolution 13 was scheduled to arrive on the senate floor in December during the last meeting of the semester. The resolution was the brainchild of the GMU Native American and Indigenous Alliance, in partnership with the Black Student Alliance, the Mason DREAMers, GMU Student Power, and a dozen other clubs that combine to form the coalition of the aggrieved. They arrived at the meeting with upwards of 50 students and a petition with over 450 signatures.
Per senate rules, every meeting there is an open forum where any student can speak. I attended the meeting to push back against the insurgent, and quickly dominant, narrative. Less than four other likeminded students attended, leaving us outnumbered 10 to one.
The room was tense, angry, and nervous. It was packed, shoulder to shoulder, as person after person stood and spoke passionately (some scathingly). They blamed Columbus for the high rate of suicide in the Native American community, made connections between the explorer and police brutality that affects the black community, and connected Resolution 13 to another resolution previously passed by the senate in support of the DREAM Act.
When it was my turn, I focused on the proper way to view and contextualize history and historical figures. I emphasized the difference between being great and being good: greatness signifies impact, a person or action that effectively altered history, while good is a moral judgement. I agreed with most of my audience that Columbus was an evil man, but I argued that he was also a great man who permanently changed history and is in some ways responsible for the eventual colonization of the United States, which the great majority of Americans think was a good thing. I said there was much to celebrate about the indigenous inhabitants, but if morality was being consistently applied to history, then the different tribes of the Americas are responsible for their own massacres of innocents, their own forms of slavery, and human sacrifice on a near-industrial scale. You could either have Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day or accept a sick kind of cultural iconoclasm and reject both. I only talked for a few minutes before my knees started to shake. It’s difficult to speak while looking out at a sea of faces staring back at you with disgust, hate, and bile.
The public session closed and the senators began to speak. The debate fell between the bill’s sponsors and Senator Caleb Kitchen, a friend of the highest quality. Beyond defending the legacy of Christopher Columbus and calling the resolution “culturally exclusive,” he poked legal holes in the resolution. These ranged from poor word choice and spelling errors to the fact that a public university like George Mason had no authority to disavow Columbus Day, which was (and is) a state-sanctioned holiday.
After three exhaustive hours, the senate moved to vote. The result floored the room: Resolution 13 was tabled until the next meeting so deliberation could continue and the errors Senator Kitchen pointed out could be corrected. As it was the last meeting of the semester, the senate would not convene again for two months.
The room went berserk. There was a mass exodus as people angrily marched out and began demonstrating and chanting. One Resolution 13 cosponsor left the room sobbing. Another cosponsor, a woman of color, was in a fury. “God damn white people!” I heard her scream from the hallway at the top of her lungs. Her racial tirade continued out of earshot. “I fucking hate white people! I want to shoot this bitch up!” a friend later recalled her saying. He alerted the university and spent months lobbying them to remove her from the senate. The administration demurred, saying it had investigated the situation and there was no threat. She kept her senate seat without censure. I couldn’t help but think that if the ethnic identity of the speaker and the group she was castigating had been reversed, the University would have gone a lot further than my friend requested.
When the senate reconvened in January, the storm had passed. I returned to speak out against the resolution once again, although this time I was one of only 10 people in the gallery. With less contention, the senate voted 25 in favor of Resolution 13, three against (including Senator Kitchen), and one abstaining. The resolution to abolish Columbus Day and rename it Indigenous Peoples’ Day was recommended to the university administration, where it died a quiet death. It hasn’t been resurrected since. The end of that spring semester saw Kitchen overwhelmingly elected speaker of the student senate. Sometimes bravery has its rewards.
In a student government that has in the past decade witnessed a scandal over financial fraud and serial sexual harassment followed by a systematic coverup, Resolution 13 and that tense meeting in December will live on as the most rancorous in memory. And it is only in memory that it will survive: the binder containing the meeting’s minutes went missing from student government records, presumed stolen by persons unknown.
The goal of Resolution 13 was ultimately not inclusion; it was conquest, using the word “diversity” as a Trojan Horse to abolish traditional Western observances and continue the erosion of cultural solidarity in the United States. At what point does diversity become toxic to the dominant culture? When it seeks to subvert it.
Happy Columbus Day.
Hunter DeRensis is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative and a student at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.