Memes: History Dumbed Down

I was recently asked by a student for a response to the following two memes:

meme 1

meme 2

My immediate reaction to these images is that they are powerful–especially since these men are staring the viewer directly in the face. And in light of the history of U.S.-“native” relations, there’s plenty for these men to be angry about (though this history, too, is more complicated than usually presented).

My second reaction is that these memes are gross oversimplifications of a complex issue (as all memes tend to be), presenting a sort of comic-book-style, good-guys-vs-bad-guys, third-grade-level analysis.

“I hate to bring this up…” –> This meme claims that all of “your people” (whatever that means) were refugees at some point. This simply isn’t true. “Immigrant” and “refugee” are different things. In fact, Americans who are non-“native” came here for a wide variety of reasons and in a wide variety of circumstances–some in chains, others in luxury, some as indentured servants but with hopes of a better life, others as adventurers, others as farmers looking to own their own land, some hoping to strike it rich, and yes, some as bonafide refugees.

And whose land did they come to? That’s a tough question, actually, though the memes suggest that they came to these mens’ land. Are we calling the territory the European migrants inhabited stolen? From whom? Were they squatting on the land of a specific American Indian nation? Whose? Or did they live on land bought and paid for? Does that make a difference? If not, why not?

When Europeans arrived, should the government of, say, the Narragansett nation have forced its people to financially support these newcomers?

How do we categorize land that was controlled by one American Indian nation when the first Europeans showed up but had, just a few years prior, been controlled by another nation (since destroyed or pushed out by the first one)? This happened often–very often–though these memes suggest a pre-European age when the American Indians (evidently one big blob of people) peacefully occupied “America.” In truth, the continent was covered in many (often starkly different) nations, usually hostile to one another, and constantly intruding upon one another’s territory, supplanting each other, killing, driving each other off, making alliances against enemies (including, later, Europeans!), building coalitions and empires–in short, everything human polities tend to do to each other all over the world. Human nature is pretty consistent that way.

When Europeans arrived, did they expect to be financially supported by the American Indian nation in the vicinity?

Should the natives have allowed the Europeans, had they actually been “refugees,” to enter their territory and set up communities?

Perhaps most importantly, if we’re still going to classify everyone of European descent as a “refugee,” even if their ancestors have been here for four centuries (as mine have), then where does it end? Do we call the Sioux “refugees” now because they encroached (violently) upon the land of other American Indian nations? Do we call all American Indians “refugees” because when their ancestors arrived they displaced or killed off previous peoples (which they did)?

As for the “So you’re against immigration…” meme –> This one makes a potent argument, no doubt–but again, at what point in history do “immigrants” get to shed their immigrant status? Is it two centuries? Five? Ten? Very few people in the world could say they aren’t immigrants according to this rubric.

I’d also add: I don’t know anyone who is “against immigration.” This, too, seems to me to be a gross oversimplification, if not the edification of a straw man. Usually people who have concerns about immigration are speaking to certain specific concerns (safety, viability of the welfare state, cultural preservation, etc., many of which are completely acceptable coming from some sectors, but classified as racist or bigoted when spoken by others…) rather than some blanket negativity toward all “immigrants.”

Personally, I’m all for welcoming refugees, especially from the Syrian quagmire to which the United States government contributed so significantly. But I’m not for foisting them upon communities and states; that’s coercive and hence immoral. Instead, it should be done voluntarily, with respect for private property (even though in any real sense private property doesn’t exist in the United States).

Were the government to ask for volunteer families to take in Syrian families, I’d offer my home.

But I don’t understand how calling people like me a “refugee” helps solve the problem–indeed, it only dumbs down history to make an emotional point at the cost of truth.

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