I recently emerged out of the Columbia bubble and found myself in a drear northern outpost called Boston. Struggling through frigid weather and trolley-based public transportation, I eventually reached and toured the USS Constitution. The ship itself was very interesting (it’s, like, old and stuff) but perhaps even more arresting was the commentary provided by our guide, an enthusiastic active-duty seaman. In a charismatic, clearly well-practiced spiel, he told us the U.S. Navy history of the USS Constitution:
“Once upon a time, poor young America was being harassed by Libyan pirates (the same Libyans who are attacking our embassies now!) and bullied into giving them ransoms for our sailors. Now, there are two ways to react to bullies: paying them off, or fighting them. But what do bullies do when you give them what they want? [Guide turns to the troop of actual, uniform-wearing Boy Scouts in the audience.] That’s right, they just ask for more! At the time, there was only one navy in the world that could stop these pirates, the British. But we had just kicked their ass, and they are sore losers, so they wouldn’t help. [Brits in audience chuckle awkwardly.] But America (being scrappy and ingenious) decided to build its own navy, and one of those ships is the one we are standing on. After sweeping the Mediterranean of Libyan bullies, it went on to win all 33 engagements in which it was involved, particularly in the War of 1812, during which the U.S. fought the British navy to a standstill.”
I must admit that I was mildly surprised by the jingoistic simplicity of the tour guide’s rant. Even ignoring the gloss of the complex and heterogeneous relationships—between the early U.S., the wartime United Kingdom, the various North African “Barbary” states, and their Ottoman protectors and sometimes suzerains—the connection of late 18th century pirates to terrorists in modern Libya (a situation at least as complex and centuries removed) is patently unwarranted. Nor did the U.S. military do anything but lose the War of 1812. The war ended without territorial changes, but for broader diplomatic reasons, not because the sides were evenly matched. The Royal Navy, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, still managed to establish an effective blockade, sinking or capturing 1,593 American ships and placing significant strain on the young American economy. Washington, D.C. was sacked, and there were more than twice as many casualties on the American side.
This description of my harsh contact with the world beyond our gates is offered by way of contrast to what we have within. Columbia’s geographically diverse student body provides an extremely interesting battleground for competing historical narratives. No period is untouched, not even obscurities like the War of 1812. In my years here, I have encountered Americans who toe the Navy’s line, Harper-supporting Canadians who say 1812 was an American invasion repulsed by courageous Canadians, and Brits who ask “What war was that again? We fought a lot of wars back then.” Even 200 years later, the history of this relatively minor event remains unsettled—and nowhere is this more evident than Columbia’s campus.
Many of our present’s greatest conflicts have to do with questions of undecided history. Israel vs. Palestine, the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, Federalism vs. states’ rights—today’s headlines were yesterday’s headlines only yesterday. Each student brings their own interpretation of these pressing issues, their own understanding of what came before. Ask a LionPAC member how the Six-Day War began and you will get a very different answer than you would from a Student for Justice in Palestine. These are not different opinions—they are competing sets of facts about the past. The dispute is not only a collision between different sets of ethics and philosophies—it is a collision of worlds that were. And when histories meet on the rhetorical battlefield, the result is beneficial for all sides and spectators.
It is important that we as Columbia students ask and tell about the worlds from whence we came. For the short time we have together, we have the opportunity to exchange our histories and get a feeling for where ours diverge from those of others. We must take full advantage of this moment—outside Columbia’s warm embrace. The world is not nearly so nuanced.
Alex Collazo is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing and economics-philosophy. He is the president of CIRCA and a former Spectator head copy editor. I’m Just Saying runs alternate Mondays.
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