What are we celebrating on Columbus Day, and is it ethical to celebrate it?
When I was a child, I was taught that we were celebrating the life of Cristoforo Columbo, popularly known as Columbus, who was convinced, against the prevailing skeptics of the time, that the Earth was round rather than flat, and in the process of proving his thesis, made the United States of America possible by discovering the New World in 1492. Virtually none of what we were taught about Columbus was true, so what we thought we were celebrating wasn’t really what we were celebrating. Columbus wasn’t alone in believing the world was round: by 1492, most educated people knew the flat Earth theory was dumb. He blundered into discovering the New World, and by introducing Spain into this rich, virgin and vulnerable territory, he subjected millions of people and generations of them to Spain’s destructive and venal approach to exploration, which was, in simple terms, loot without mercy. The Spanish were like locusts to the Americas; South and Central America are still paying the priced today. Surely we aren’t celebrating Columbus’s complicity in that.
Nor could we be honoring his character. All of history’s heroes have flaws, warts and skeletons in their closets, but few seem as ugly and ethically bankrupt as Columbus. His one defense is that he was a man of his times, but so were the purveyors of the Spanish Inquisition, and we don’t have holidays named after them. Columbus treated the native people he encountered exactly like the nastier invading aliens in science fiction movies treat humans. They are slaves, subjects and nuisances, if not food: at least Columbus didn’t try to eat the Taino people, who he just helped to decimate instead.
Are we celebrating exploration, discovery, and discoverers, perhaps? If so, Columbus would seem to symbolize the worst aspects of the breed. I am reminded of the words spoken by Ian Malcolm, the “chaotician” played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park:
“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”
Celebrating Columbus Day, it seems to me, is a cultural cheer for consequentialism, like having a holiday honoring the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Yes, in a sense we owe Columbus: as with the asteroid, without him, we might not be here—but we don’t have Asteroid Day for a reason: it would be stupid. Columbus, however, had little more intent to lay the groundwork for the world’s most successful democracy than that asteroid had to pave the way for the human race. Moreover, unlike that asteroid, it seems likely, indeed inevitable, that the rape of the natural world in the Americas was going to happen eventually anyway. It’s a mighty big land mass to remain unknown and unvisited forever, and it is probablt that whenever the technologically superior Europeans got here with their dread pandemics, native Americans were not going to fare well or justly. For the same reason, it is grossly unfair to lay what happened to our indigenous people at Columbus’s feet.
And who is to say that the world would be better today had pre-Columbian civilizations persisted without European interference? I can imagine an alternate history where the Taino and the rest all end up in a triumphant Third Reich’s ovens, with no United States to stand in Hitler’s way.
I suppose, then, Columbus Day in 2013 is just a way to show gratitude for the way things worked out, to say that it’s a good thing, on balance, that the United States is here, that we’re grateful for it, and that we recognize Columbus, with all his brutality and blunders, as a representative of all of the random occurrences, events, people and lucky strokes that got us this far. There is no reason any native American should agree, and I have to think if we really worked at it, maybe we could come up with a more appropriate and less conflicting object of our respect.
Happy Asteroid Day?