On July 15, The Emory Wheel published a student-written op-ed titled “In Defense of American History.” As alumnae of the Wheel, we are disappointed in both the publication of this editorial and the arguments presented therein.
The author’s argument stems from a grievance with the comments of activists and the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, who have publicly supported removing the Mt. Rushmore monument. The author startlingly states that “these appeals and their justifications are hypocritical” due to the violence the Lakota perpetrated against another Indigenous group in 1776. How could the author possibly expect criticism of small, historical intertribal disputes to be as salient as past and ongoing injustices, including genocide, forcible displacement and cultural erasure, against Indigenous people? And how can the author discuss these events without bringing up the Wounded Knee Massacre, a brutal conflict in which American soldiers murdered Indigenous people? Or the Trail of Tears, the federal government’s displacement of tens of thousands of Indigenous people?
The author then has the gall (or perhaps the ignorance) to ask, “Were the Lakota not brutal colonizers?” The answer is a resounding no. The author conflates discourse surrounding colonial violence with all violence that occurred on modern-day American soil, presenting a false equivalence between intertribal disputes and colonial genocide. This minimizes the brutal injustices that Indigenous people experienced at the founding of our country and continue to experience today. That tactic echoes ludicrous fallacies such as “Black-on-Black” crime, and misdirects discussions of the lasting impact of colonialism. We believe that the Wheel’s readers deserve better than such fallacious arguments.
Throughout the piece, the author levels a series of accusations at dissenters, including that they lack consistency and abhor the West. The idea that political dissent needs to be “consistent” fails to acknowledge the varying degrees of injustice occurring globally and their differing urgencies. The author also accuses dissenters of having “ulterior motives.” If “ulterior motives” refers to securing rights and reparations for historic injustice, then dissenters absolutely have “ulterior motives” and every right to pursue these aims.
In using phrases like “those who have accomplished comparatively very little,” the author frames legitimate political dissent as a nefarious and frivolous endeavor. To implicitly diminish the work of movements centered around dissents, such as the Stonewall riots, the Civil Rights Movement, the Dakota pipeline protests and activists like Autumn Peltier, is also to ignore the power of protest and civil disobedience. Even this year, recent protests against racial injustice successfully prompted a police reform bill in Congress. These are the same tactics in which the founding fathers engaged during the Revolutionary War — how can the author praise their contributions yet vilify contemporary forms of dissent?
On top of these fallacies, the author’s argument rests on the notion that Indigenous people are not critical of their own histories. The author further laments that professors and pundits do not criticize Nelson Mandela and ethnic violence in other countries. Again, we wonder: why expect American activists to be as vocal about the history between the Turks and the Slavs as they are about violence in their home country? The author should consider that professors and pundits publicly condemn some injustices more than others because certain past atrocities are more relevant to current events.
But the idea that Indigenous populations, journalists and academics do not critique their own communities, or other countries who have engaged in equally damaging politics, is a red herring at best and factually inaccurate at worst. Significant scholarship suggests that such academic criticism and even calls for reparations occur. Plenty of public discourse about Mandela’s controversial legacy followed his 2013 death. Likewise for other venerated figures, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. To suggest otherwise to the Wheel’s readers is misleading.
The author proceeds to make the bizarre statement that what separates the West from “the rest” (a phrase that itself carries problematic notions of Orientalism, damaging us-them dichotomies and American exceptionalism) is strength and success. This implies that European and white settler nations have a monopoly on both. As the U.S. leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, with Indigenous populations suffering disproportionately due to systemically racist structures, this statement would strike us as farcical if the current crisis weren’t so tragic.
The author then states that the United States’ “successful colonization distinguishes [it] from the Lakota.” This implies that such a thing as good colonization exists. But even if we were to accept the author’s claims about “strength and success” for argument’s sake, the author equates opposition to specific American policies and historical practices with a general disdain for the West. We wonder if the author would be so quick to paint dissenters as anti-American if they were primarily white. Healthy dissent and reconciliation is a far more valid indicator of a democratic nation’s strength than the “successful” colonization of Indigenous peoples.
We now live in a time of intersecting calamities: a worldwide pandemic, continuing police brutality and mass incarceration, economic recession, accelerating climate change, and an autocratic administration that routinely perpetuates problems instead of solutions. The author’s critique of contemporary activists’ motives makes us wonder whether the author has “ulterior motives.” What exactly is the point of educating the Wheel’s readers on ancient intertribe disputes between the Lakota and Cheyenne peoples during this tumultuous time?
We ask the author to clarify their statement that “[the actions of the U.S. presidents] have nonetheless resulted in an incalculable net-positive for the American people.” In the current moment, as partisan bias seems to accompany even facts themselves, we encourage a presumption against such unfalsifiable claims. Moreover, we take issue with a cost-benefit analysis of this nature. If the author intends to imply that the accomplishments of American presidents compensate for colonial genocide and enslavement, we wonder what sort of mathematical gymnastics produces a net-positive and who exactly reaps those benefits. Our founding fathers’ values of democracy and self-actualization deserve no admiration if those values are not extended to all who reside within U.S. borders.
We believe that criticism should consider relative institutional power and be proportional to the injustices perpetrated. Therefore, we implore the author to redirect the energy they used to gin up misguided ire toward historically oppressed groups and instead, advocate against the truly existential crises of our time.
Rupsha Basu (16C) was the Wheel’s executive editor from 2015-2016 and Priyanka Krishnamurthy (15C) was the Wheel’s editor-in-chief from 2014-2015.