The Strange, Conflicted, Unethical Holiday We Call Columbus Day

"Yes, it seems like a catastrophe now, but some day creatures called human beings will celebrate this day..."

“Yes, it seems like a catastrophe now, but some day creatures called human beings will celebrate this moment…”

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?

_____________________

Graphic: Amsatire

39 thoughts on “The Strange, Conflicted, Unethical Holiday We Call Columbus Day

  1. Hey, that’s got possibility. Let’s just have a party with a T-rex or bronto day! Think of all the cuddly stuffed dinosaurs and asteroid cookies we can make. Children can cower under the tables to hide from raptors and play freeze tag weith the asteroid as the active hunter. Think of all the new products people can invent.

    • Funny!

      It’s interesting that he also used the asteroid analogy, which I had never used or heard before today. His assessment of Columbus has some historical speculation and the worst version imaginable, but he’s generally right. He doesn’t mention that CC was personally dedicated to spreading Christianity.

      • When you used the Asteroid analogy I immediately went looking for the link to the oatmeal comic but I see another reader beat me to it and that the analogy was a coincidence. This is close to what my teen daughter learned in her private school’s history class – NOT what was taught to her brother in public school. It is time to bury the old Christopher Columbus legend.

  2. Columbus Day should be celebrated if you are of European descent. NA and SA are little more than New Europe. Indigenous Americans will not.. African Americans, maybe. Asian Americans, most definitely.

    The Western Hemisphere was bound to be invaded by the most developed cultures of Eurasia.

    There is a controversial and fascinating book that tries to explain why Eurasians have come to dominate every other continent and culture on this planet… A long read about anthropology, but worth it “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by Jared Diamond.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guns,_Germs,_and_Steel

    • I read maybe a third of Guns, Germs and Steel before I gave up. Not because I disagreed with the author’s hypothesis, but because I found it simply too dry for my liking. PBS did a series on the book which, perhaps, I may watch one day. http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/show/index.html

      Question – do you think it’s a good thing that “Eurasians have come to to dominate every other continent and culture on this planet?” Personally, I believe this group of races have a sickness in their collective soul. I’ve been researching this and found what may be a formal, yet slippery, delineation of it – wendigo… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wetiko

      (Interestingly, I remember the camp counselors when I was a kid at Camp Mendota in Maine telling us wendigo stories around the campfire. Then, after we went to bed, they’d scare us shitless by creeping up on the cabins and moaning unearthly sounds, scratching the screens, etc.)

      Currently I’m reading a book by Paul Levy called Dispelling Wetiko. It’s a hard read for me, but I’m determined to get through it. http://www.awakeninthedream.com/wordpress/close-encounters-of-the-wetiko-kind/

      Maybe I suffer from a case of self hatred. I was born a Jew but I loathe Israel. I was born Caucasian but, in general, I loathe my own race for sins committed in the past and present.

      I do have have many Caucasian and/or Jewish heroes… Bill Moyers, Chris Hedges, Harvey Milk, Sally Becker, Albert Einstein, Noam Chomsky, , the REAL Jesus Christ, all those white kids who came to the aid of blacks in the South during the 1960s, and many many more.

      I believe our country is on the path to a new fascism. I see it in our schools (I am a retired teacher, now a substitute teacher). I see it in our government. I see it in the law enforcement on our streets. I see it in the mainstream media. America is fast becoming the monster we once fought so valiantly against, and I see no way to reverse this insane voyage we have undertaken. Talk about “Moby Dick” … http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/we_are_all_aboard_the_pequod_20130707

      • “I believe our country is on the path to a new fascism. I see it in our schools (I am a retired teacher, now a substitute teacher). I see it in our government. I see it in the law enforcement on our streets. I see it in the mainstream media. America is fast becoming the monster we once fought so valiantly against, and I see no way to reverse this insane voyage we have undertaken.”

        Thanks, that echoes succinctly and accurately what I believe, too.

  3. He ‘Blundered’ into discovering the new world? Isn’t that called ‘moral luck’? Part of my brain insists that this is much like when Paula Deen was lambasted for her having grown up in the south, with the antiquated attitudes that entails.

    Columbus was a man of his time. He may not have been the only one who believed the earth was round, but he did stick his neck out for it. He led his men into the complete unknown, and handled (admittedly, poorly) the unknown when he arrived. He ‘knew’ that there were subhuman beings on the face of the earth – that’s what he had known all of his life. And then he encountered new ones. He subdued with force of superior arms the forces he met, and emerged victorious, eventually returning to his homeland to stake his claim upon history.

    Could he have been kinder, more respectful, of what we know are human beings? Absolutely. Did he fight fair? Not hardly. Did all sorts of horrors unroll themselves after he did so? Yup. How many of those were truly his fault, and not merely laid at his doorstep by those who would see him vilified? I highly doubt he made his choice to sail to a new world in the hopes of crushing him some indigenous peoples. He wanted to explore in an age of exploration, to make his mark upon history, and to get rich. And he put his life on the line, and convinced many other men to follow his example, in order to do so.

    I’m not great fan of CC, but the hatred which is piled upon the man is distasteful to me. Was he a saint? Heavens, no. But neither was he a demon – he was a man. And the first to do what he did, at great risk. His name belongs in the annals with Neil Armstrong and the first man who sets foot on mars – even if future generations do decide to denigrate them for ‘making it possible for humankind to rape the distant planets for resources.’

    • I’m not sure I’d call it moral luck: I think I’d call it just plain luck. Not that there is anything wrong with giving some credit to any Jack who pulls out a plum, but the only way anyone can stand honoring Columbus or teaching kids about him without giving them nightmares is to ignore what he did—essentially treat human beings he felt superior to like beasts and playthings—and what his primary motives were—greed, mostly—in favor of cover stories. I can’t condone that. Not all explorers act like bulls in china shops; Armstrong is a good example. On the other hand, 1) we knew the moon was there and 2) so far, the utility of Columbus’s discovery beats it all to hell.

      Yes, he was a man of his time. If he really had set out to prove the world was round, OR had really “discovered” the new world, I think the argument that his other little transgressions like wiping out one tribe and being flagrantly cruel are outbalanced in the grand scheme of things would have some persuasive force. Since what he did accomplish inadvertently was random chance, however, and since what he did intentionally was largely horrible, the conclusion that he’s a poor choice to use to symbolize discovery, exploration, the origins of the U.S. or anything else is inescapable, and it has nothing to do with yearning for two continents unspoiled by the brutal and ecologically destructive realities of civilization. I’m a fan of that part. Just not the man we give the credit to.

  4. Whatever else he was Columbus was very devout to Christianity and claimed to be an instrument in God’s hands. Of course, that may be a further point against him in many minds. In any case, his voyages, both directly and indirectly led to European settlements in the new world. Which is a positive in my mind. The new world is the only place that has been able to support such a long period of constitutional republican style government to become a successful reality.

  5. Pingback: The Other Untold Columbus Day: A Pro-Native American Origin (Part 1) « Carl Anthony Online

  6. 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.

    It was underway before Columbus got here.

    http://www.cracked.com/article_19864_6-ridiculous-lies-you-believe-about-founding-america_p2.html

  7. I didn’t even know yesterday was Columbus Day until I tried to deposit a check at the credit union. It really isn’t mentioned in the news here. Now, you haven’t seen mad until you see someone with Seminole tribal tags on their car find out they can’t deposit their paycheck because it is “Columbus Day”.

  8. I get suspicious when some self-acclaimed pundit starts bashing Columbus for his discovery of the new world and gets lachrymose over the decimation of the native people of the Americas. First, the native people didn’t exactly have glorious compassionate societies. Witness the Aztecs who reported that they sacrificed 80,400 prisoners over the course of four days. The Incas were similar in their blood lust. Columbus was a man of his time but not particularly cruel. True, his men brought disease that decimated the Taino but the germ theory of disease was to come in the late 19th century.

    • What self-proclaimed pundit are you referring to? It better not be me: 1) I’m not a pundit, and have never proclaimed myself as such 2) Nothing in the post bashes Columbus for discovering the New World, however accidentally. I’m damn glad he did. Also glad that big asteroid (or meteor) hit. 3) I don’t recall getting lachrymose about the horrible fate of the native Americans—migrations tend to be zero sum events, with winners and losers. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a horrible fate, and citing the brutality of the tribes themselves is the worst kind of rationalizing—right, Wayne, this excuses torturing, killing and enslaving them. 4) If you come uninvited to another land and spread a killer plague, you are responsible, whether you knew what you were doing or not.

      Finally, making excuses for documented bloody, cruel, genocidal and greedy behavior does not make a case for national honors, which, you will note, was the topic of the post.

      • Similar to arguments made about African slavery back in the day — it wasn’t wrong for Americans to put Africans in bondage because many Africans utilized slavery as well. Ugh.

      • I note in my crummy wikipedia dictionary that genocidal is defined as the *deliberate* killing of a large group of people, esp. those of a particular ethnic group or nation. I don’t think Columbus or his men deliberately tried to kill a large group of “Indians”. He forced some into servitude or slavery which was not good behavior by our standards. Cortez and the rest of the Spanish conquistadores did massacre a significant proportion of the population and countless others died of disease. However, they did bring Christianity to the new world which I think was better than the Aztec or Inca system. I reserve genocidal for people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Chairman Mao.

    • I don’t hear it from self-acclaimed pundits, and I hear more scorn at Jackson than Columbus. However, if you need to deposit your paycheck and the bank is closed to celebrate the inaugural event of a migration event that resulted in the decimation and forcible relocation of your tribe, it is adding insult to injury.

  9. “… but so were the purveyors of the Spanish Inquisition, and we don’t have holidays named after them.”

    Now there’s a thought…Torquemada Day. Makes almost as much sense. I was rather surprised to note that the Post Office was closed yesterday. Found out from my route carrier that it was because October 14th fell on a Monday and the PO needed one more extra day weekend. May or may not be true. Thanks to Jeremy for the Oatmeal post. Loved it.

    • Torquemada was a Spaniard so it would make no sense at all. Too bad the post office was closed but then again for sentimental reasons I hate to see traditional American Holidays disappear. “Presidents Day” for Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday? Bah Humbug.

        • I really don’t think that Columbus participated in any auto-da-fés. He got his money from the Spanish Monarchs after failing to get his money from the King of Portugal. He needed money to finance his voyages period. I’m sure he would have went to France or someplace else if the Spaniards had turned him down. So Columbus imho didn’t have any interest is spreading the Inquisition. Your point is bogus.

  10. “…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.” This may be nitpicking on my part, but Columbus did not prove that the world was round. What he proved was that it doesn’t matter how wrong someone is as long as they get lucky (as a matter of ethics, I know that statement won’t stand, but I’m speaking very broadly here). All educated persons of Columbus’ time knew that the earth was spherical, and had since the time of the ancient Greeks. Where Columbus differed in his thinking from other navigators of the day was in the size of that sphere. He believed, wrongly, that the earth was much smaller than conventional wisdom said, and that Asia was much bigger. So, said he, one could sail west and reach Asia in a much shorter time than was possible by the known easterly route. He was wrong on both counts. BUT. While conventional wisdom was correct, as far as it went, what no one knew was that there were two whole other continents to the west. Had there not been, Columbus’ provisions would have given out, and he’d have never been heard from again. Talk about moral luck! It took awhile to sort out exactly what Columbus had discovered, but he himself went to his grave convinced that he had found a hitherto unknown portion of Asia.

    • Possible answers:

      1. It didn’t: I just wanted to see if anyone was paying attention. (You were the only one, and it took YOU over a year.)
      2. In 2013 I read more information about the Taino tribe and Columbus’s treatment of them.
      3. I think both points of view have validity. It all depends what we are celebrating, or think we are.

      • 1) well, I wasn’t aware of the 1st post having only begun here in late 2012.

        2) I wonder if Columbus would have treated the actual East Asians that way if north america never existed and he reached his intended destination.

        3) Fair enough

  11. I’m a bit torn. Ultimately, a significant portion of the anti-columbus information relies on the word of Bobadilla, who successfully got Columbus removed as governor and then took over himself, and Bartolome de la Casas, who arrived in Hispaniola after Columbus was recalled. It’s a bit like taking the word of progressives on what Trump did.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/30204479 points out how historians have dealt with a transcribed diary and treated something as being authored solely by Columbus that wasn’t.

    Frankly, history is a lot more iffy than I think most people like to acknowledge. I’ve been skeptical for a long time, but watching the media try to memory-hole inconvenient facts in real time has been an eye opener.

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