Archive for October 12th, 2008

Columbus Day

Cristoforo Columbo, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a cigar (ooops, wrong Columbo) I mean, sailing with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria “discovered” the new world and thus opened the way for the spread of western civilization.  In so doing, he battled against European beliefs that the world was flat, and he’d sail over the edge.  His brave and daring mission represents the true explorer spirit, and thus from space shuttles to TV detectives to capital districts, Columbus, Columbia, and Columbo all attest to this glorious explorer’s mission.  At least, that’s the story.

Very few people in Europe believed the earth was flat by 1492, and Columbus himself never realized he’d discovered the new world.  Based on his conjecture of the Earth’s circumference he thought he was in Asia, and he constantly sought a passage to the wealth of India and China.  Moreover, as a Governor of one of the colonies he was accused of friend and foe alike of tyrannical rule and atrocities.  It is almost certain that he does not live up to his mythic image, but is his legacy even more dubious?

Many people argue that we should simply cease celebrating Columbus day (or, the more “subversive” claim, rename it something like National Genocide Day or Mass Murder Day).  Columbus not only committed atrocities, but brought disease, suffering and ultimately European conquest to a relatively stable and generally peaceful world of Native American nations and tribes.  In that view Columbus is a villain, and it is hypocrisy and dishonesty to even have a day off for him (traditionally today — October 12th — the day land was sighted in the Bahamas, though now it’s the second Monday in October).

Ah, Americans and their “evil individual fallacy.”  Columbus was neither great nor evil.  He isn’t worth being celebrated, but he’s also not so bad that he should be demonized.  He was not the motivator and enabler of the genocide that followed, he simply was known as one of the first Europeans in what certainly was an inevitable European conquest of the new world.  He committed atrocities, but was not the cause for Spanish massacres in South America, or the low tech holocaust of North American Indian tribes.   Columbus was simply a sailor and a business man, apparently both cruel and arrogant, though supposedly religious as he neared the end of his life.

But who really cares about the man?  Does the man even matter?  Is it, in fact, a kind of cultural silliness that we fixate on individuals so much, from Columbus to Saddam Hussein?  What happened on this continent from 1500 to about 1900 was a persistent and violent conquest and genocide, which saw entire peoples wiped out by disease and war.  It was the result of a mindset that saw the West as superior and thus western deaths were important, while “savage” deaths were not.  If we could spread our way of life and politics, it was to the benefit of others, even if large masses were killed in the process.  It was a kind of inhumane abstract cultural arrogance that drove the Europeans to this barbarism, mostly unquestioned at the time, and even to this day, not seen clearly or truly accepted.  Do we risk a kind of self-congratulatory sense of “standing up for humanity” by not recognizing this holiday?  Look at our behavior today — is our culture really that much more advanced in terms of its actions in the world, from treatment of other peoples, exploitation for economic profit, and lack of concern for the environment (despite evidence of devastation being done)?

I don’t really care much about Columbus or Columbus day.  I love having a day off at the peak of autumn foliage, and certainly do not want to give that up, no matter what the day is called or who it is named after.  But Columbus himself isn’t that important.  Coming to grips with the past isn’t telling the true story of Columbus; he was in actuality a bit player, pushed into the limelight through happenstance of history.  Coming to grips with the past encompasses a greater swath of history, a critical look at our ideals and values, and an examination of how we got to where we are today.   Attacking the celebration of Columbus day is misguided; coming to grips with the past and its impact on our present way of thinking really doesn’t require us to think too much about Cristoforo Columbo.  It requires us to confront our past on every level.  So enjoy the autumn foilate, and happy Columbus Day!

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