Last Monday, I tucked my daughter (she's eight) into bed and asked her about her day. She told me that, during morning announcements, the principal had said that they weren't celebrating Columbus Day, but instead "some other day. It was kind of a long word." "Indigenous Peoples' Day," I asked? "Yes," she replied, then added: "They made it about Native Americans I think because Columbus was sort of a bad man."
For the last five years, I have used the second Monday in October to teach my daughter about the history of genocide. It started when she came home from pre-school reciting a story about a heroic explorer who discovered that the world was round and sailed across the Atlantic to meet the "Indians." I didn't think I should pour out the whole history of the destruction of the Americas to my daughter at age three, but I have been working slowly to help her see the histories, good and bad, of the world in which she lives. She knows we live on land that was taken from the Ojibwe. She knows that we are alive because our ancestors fled pogroms, poverty, war, and potato famines. She knows that the Americas were populated with complex societies that traded, fought, conquered, collaborated, expanded, and collapsed long before Europeans came. She knows something of the horrors that followed. I want her to be unafraid to look straight at history, even when the implications are ugly.
Based on this most recent Columbus Day, the American right wing is a little less sanguine than I am about truly facing the past. Instead of looking for nuance and accepting that the history of the United States is built on horrors both intentional and unimaginable, American conservatives decided to celebrate the controversial holiday by talking about the Aztecs.
Christopher Columbus never met the Aztecs, though he did likely meet some of their gold. Regardless of Columbus' lack of contact with the Central American empire, in recent years, Aztec violence seems to have become the main justification for conservative celebrations of colonialism, slavery, demographic collapse (thanks to smallpox), and ethnic cleansing.
The "again" in Trump's "Make America Great Again" combines a fear of the future with a refusal to really look at the past.
Here are just a few examples of the Aztec-centered rhetoric: the Daily Caller, the Federalist, and other fringe sites all used evidence of cannibalism among Aztecs and other indigenous peoples as justifications for celebrating Columbus Day. Fox News reporter Doug McKelway asserted that native deaths by smallpox were balanced by the introduction of syphilis to Europeans, before he turned to cannibalism as a justification for conquest; Fox filled the screen with images of Aztec human sacrifices. The Daily Wire, meanwhile, posted a cartoon depicting Aztecs as cannibal savages chomping into a human leg—all part of their mission to exonerate Columbus. Daily Wire editor Ben Shapiro took the video down, but only after it had been widely condemned for about 24 hours. What he didn't do, though, is apologize for publishing essentially the same anti-indigenous argument in 2015 and again earlier this month. Instead, he doubled down on "Western Civilization's cultivation of the Americas" as a "great historical good."
The Americas, of course, were already cultivated long before the first European set foot here. Neither Shapiro's denial of this fact nor his site's use of "savagery" to justify colonialism is new. As medieval history professor Matt Gabriele of Virginia Tech pointed out on Twitter, Shapiro's argument echoes that made by Juan Gines Sepúlveda in 1550, when the philosopher debated Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, the Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico. Sepúlveda argued that Spain was right to subjugate the indigenous people because the natives could not rule themselves, citing paganism and cannibalism as evidence. A few centuries later, in North America, colonists made similar arguments about the indigenous peoples they had destroyed or driven out, and started looking for a symbol for the basic goodness of the European course of "cultivation." They settled on Columbus and the figure of "Columbia."
Denials of history's horrors, at least those done by "Westerners," are a major feature of right-wing rhetoric. It's not just Columbus. The modern source of the Aztec-cannibalism-justifies-Columbus meme might be Dinesh D'Souza, who discussed the Aztecs in a 1995 essay attacking multiculturalism. D'Souza more recently engaged in another kind of denialism when he took to Twitter to deny that the Holocaust targeted homosexual men. (It did.) Over this last year, we've seen the pretense that the Lost Cause statues were somehow pure relics of the Civil War, rather than cheap mass-produced totems intended to invent a new history of the South. Republicans at once tout that Abraham Lincoln—a Republican—freed the slaves (he did!) while denying that the Civil War was about slavery (it was!).
Maybe it's always been thus in the American conservative movement. Sure, William F. Buckley famously cast himself as an enemy of the future when he proclaimed in 1955 that conservatives' place was to stand "athwart history, yelling stop." But honestly, only a person who refuses to look at the horrors of the past could shout "stop" in hopes of nothing changing. The "again" in Trumpism's "Make America Great Again" echoes that combined fear of the future with a refusal to really look at the past.
There are elements of both our history and our present that I am not eager to reveal to my child. She mostly knows about the Nazis from Captain America so far. They are villains. You punch them. The true horrors of the Holocaust can wait. It'll be even harder for her to learn that not all our ancestors were victims, but that's part of becoming a good citizen of this country and the world. We can be proud and confident in who we are without shying away from the bad choices made by those who came before us. We just have to keep believing that we can make better ones.