From The Ethics Alarms Archives: Two Ethics Takes On Columbus Day

In 2011, I wrote an Ethics Alarm post extolling Christopher Columbus, and urging readers to celebrate this day named in his honor. Two years later, I wrote a post arguing that the holiday was a mistake. Which is how I really feel? Which is correct? I have no idea. I just read both, and found each persuasive. You know the famous observation in thethe essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”? Today I like that line. Sometimes I don’t.

I certainly don’t like the current movement to cancel Columbus Day, and Columbus, out of the culture and historical record because he was not appropriately sensitive to indigenous people by 21st Century standards. That is no better than tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee, airbrushing history to avoid the inherent conflicts and dilemmas that make it invaluable to us going forward into the unknown…like Columbus did.

Here are the two posts. You decide. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled I could find the great Stan Freberg’s version of Columbus’s quest (above). More of my sensibilities about life, humor and history were effected by Freberg’s satire than I like to admit…

I. Celebrate Columbus Day, Honor Columbus

Today is Columbus Day, not that one would know it to read the typical paper or to watch most newscasts. The Italian explorer’s reputation and legacy have been relentlessly eroded over the years by temporal chauvinists who apply spurious social and historical hindsight to justify unfair criticism of civilization’s heroes. Christopher Columbus deserves the honor this holiday bestowed on him.  He was a visionary and an explorer who, like all transformative figures, possessed the courage and imagination to challenge conventional wisdom and seek new horizons of achievement.

Holding Columbus responsible for the predation of the Spanish and the devastation of native populations that were among the unanticipated consequences of his achievement is the equivalent of blaming Steve Jobs for technology’s elimination of occupations and the fact that our children are fat and have the attention span of mayflies. And of course, anyone who believes that the Stone Age populations of the Americas would have continued to prosper in Avatar bliss without Columbus’s intrusion is ignorant of both human nature and world history.

To celebrate Columbus Day is to extol the virtues of creativity, courage, fortitude, sacrifice, determination, diligence, perseverance, leadership and vision, as well as to acknowledge the debt our nation owes Columbus for its existence. Pronouncing him a villain, as it is now politically correct to do, encourages future generations to fear change, conflict, risk and innovation, all crucial to the American spirit and the advancement of humanity.

Today it is appropriate to reacquaint ourselves with the 19th Century poem that was once standard fare in elementary schools, but is now relegated to the same bin of forgetfulness as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “Casey at the Bat” and “The Highwayman.” It is “Columbus,” by Joaquin Miller, himself a historical figure who deserves to be remembered, and it was one of my dad’s favorites.


By Joaquin Miller (1837-1913)

Behind him lay the gray Azores,    
  Behind the Gates of Hercules;    
Before him not the ghost of shores,    
  Before him only shoreless seas.    

The good mate said: “Now must we pray,           
  For lo! the very stars are gone.    
Brave Admiral, speak, what shall I say?”    
  “Why, say, ‘Sail on! sail on! and on!’”    

“My men grow mutinous day by day;    
  My men grow ghastly wan and weak.”           
The stout mate thought of home; a spray    
  Of salt wave washed his swarthy cheek.    

“What shall I say, brave Admiral, say,    
  If we sight naught but seas at dawn?”    
“Why, you shall say at break of day,           
  ‘Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!’”    

They sailed and sailed, as winds might blow,    
  Until at last the blanched mate said:    
“Why, now not even God would know    
  Should I and all my men fall dead.           

These very winds forget their way,    
  For God from these dread seas is gone.    
Now speak, brave Admiral, speak and say”—    
  He said: “Sail on! sail on! and on!”    

They sailed. They sailed. Then spake the mate:          
  “This mad sea shows his teeth to-night.    
He curls his lip, he lies in wait,    
  With lifted teeth, as if to bite!    

Brave Admiral, say but one good word:    
  What shall we do when hope is gone?”           
The words leapt like a leaping sword:    
  “Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!”    

Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,    
  And peered through darkness. Ah, that night    
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—          
  A light! A light! A light! A light!    

It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!    
  It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.    
He gained a world; he gave that world    
  Its grandest lesson:

“On! Sail On!”

Now the later, more cynical post…

II. The Strange, Conflicted, Unethical Holiday We Call Columbus Day

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 probably 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?

20 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: Two Ethics Takes On Columbus Day

  1. Well, there’s a lot of myths out there these days that unnecessarily demonize Columbus. This is a
    good video on the complicated man he really was.

    Spoilers: He wasn’t very cruel to the natives he encountered. He was a greatly skilled sailor( I also remember a National Geographic article that went into great detail about how good he was at navigating) who had good reason for believing that he had discovered India.

    I think your first take was the correct one. This man was a great explorer who through bravery and skill brought two halves of the world together. He wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t stupid nor was he malevolent. Greed, I think was his worst attribute.

    • Agreed. Whoever makes that giant leap for mankind will almost never be a pattern-card for all virtues until the end of time. They still must be respected for that leap. It might be luck they did it first, but we don’t really know how things would have changed even five years later, but I feel sure the later it was, the greater the technological differences.

      What great leap have these jackals and eraserheads made for the world? It is so much easier to criticize than to discover or create new things?

  2. Ah yes, that time of the year when it’s cool to throw stones to Columbus’s statue in Mexico City.

    I strongly favor celebrating it, with all its nuances and complications. What better way to learn that actual history is messy. (And in Mexico it’s known as Race Day, so even better!)

  3. Well, off to the City today to celebrate my heritage, at least as long as I am allowed to. Those that don’t want to join in are more than welcome to stay home or go in the office and try to get a jump on work. I don’t know where the idea came from that if someone disagrees with a celebration then no one should be allowed to celebrate.

    Actually I think I do know. I hate to break the news to you, but this isn’t about Christopher Columbus and what he did or didn’t do. This isn’t about the Indians and how they should or shouldn’t have been treated. This is about two things leading to a third thing. First this is about dividing society, not just between the Italian-Americans and the Indians, but between those who choose to celebrate, or even who choose to leave it alone, and those who oppose to appear “woke” or “forward-thinking” or just not to appear racist. Second, it’s about an attack on the West, its history, and its traditions by those who hate it and all it stands for, and can’t wait to try to make this place into the illusory utopia people like Bernie Sanders promise. It’s from both those things that a few folks hope to score political points and generate political capital.

    It’s rich to call those who choose to celebrate Italian-American culture and contributions racist. We were treated pretty badly upon arrival, and not really even considered white initially. The biggest lynching ever in the US was of 11 Italian-Americans in New Orleans. It was also a year before we were allowed to join the fight in WW2 because we “passed the test” according to FDR. We might not boast a heavily decorated UNIT from that conflict like the 442nd, but we do boast several highly decorated INDIVIDUALS, like John Basilone, Vito Bertoldo, and Ralph Cheli.

    It’s also rich to call the third most influential person (after Christ and Mohammed tied for first and Guttenberg second) in history a villain for making everything that is America possible. Don’t give me that Leif Erickson was first nonsense, he established no lasting link. But while we’re on the topic, if Leif truly was first, doesn’t the guilt transfer to him? Don’t bother answering, the question was rhetorical. And please don’t throw out that pseudohistory about the Welsh Indians and Chinese villages on the West Coast before Columbus. Here’s one you can answer, though: Do you really think that, once it was known there was a whole untouched hemisphere, the rulers of Europe would have written some kind of treaty banning any European from sailing west out of sight of the Pillars of Hercules? Do you think such a treaty would have lasted more than a generation? Do you really think that the world would be a better place had the United States never come to be? Yes or no, please, no equivocating. If the answer is no, then why the fuss? If the answer is yes, why are you still here?

    Viva Italia! Viva America! Viva Colombo!

  4. I vote for No. 1. No. 2 simply echoes modern cant that we should judge historical figures by our present standards. Not fair or just, historical revisionism at its worst. Was Christopher Columbus a terrible human being? Probably. So is just about everyone on the planet. To state that he was a responsible for killing off native populations in the newly discovered continents is to assume that the Pre-Colombian peoples were living noble and fulfilled lives, in harmony with nature, and sowing the seeds of a lasting peace that the stupid Europeans couldn’t ever comprehend because, well, they were (and are) stupid. Never mind those Aztec, Mayan, Totonacan, and Toltec images carved into those architecturally superior pyramids (basic four smooth-sided triangles placed on top of piles or rock) displaying scenes of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and endless wars. Oh, and the slavery thingy? Yeah, that wasn’t just some Mesopotamian and European invention. Nope. The Asian powers were pretty adept at it as were the Noble Savages running around newly discovered continents “employing” the vanquished in the latest skirmish – yeah, I know: The “uncompensated newly employed” were honored to be held by the conquerors.

    And, we don’t celebrate Columbus the Man as we recognize that, without him through auspices of Spain, the present would look a whole lot different.


    • Now, now. To be fair to alternate universe Jack, I didn’t argue that Columbus wasn’t honor-worthy because of his 15th Century values. I argued that he certainly wasn’t honor worthy because of his virtues. So I explored other justifications, and didn’t find those compelling either….and I specifically rejected the idea that the present would necessarily look a whole lot different, and that happening to cause a Back to the Future-style right turn in the path of history itself was not necessarily honor worthy either—you know, all that stuff about Astroid Day? Did you not get that far?

      • Unfortunately, Jack, this is becoming an issue that people get very passionate about. We Italians do not like this attack on our culture and our history. To the woke, we are just one more group of Neanderthal bigoted mouth breathers who just won’t get with the times and need to be forced into line. Unfortunately, some of us just aren’t going to let ourselves be forced into line. I already had to throw one co-worker who started Columbus bashing in front of me out of my office, with a stern warning that if he brought the subject up again there was going to be a real problem. This is reaching similar territory as daring to question the IRA in front of a Hibernian, or telling a Turk that maybe his people have gotten away with a little too much in their history. If you say any of those things you risk getting hurt, and maybe it’s time for some of us to start hurting those who push our buttons.

          • It’s a long story, Jack, but the short version is that he became symbolic of the Italian people here, he was one of a very few Italians who the WASP majority could actually respect. So we formed “Columbian” societies and put up statues of Columbus where we got our starts. He’s become the emblem of our achievements. To knock him down or take away the holiday is now to strike at us.

              • And most of that Italian connection isn’t well-known outside of Italians and/or areas with a heavy Italian influence. Houston isn’t known for its huge Italian community, so I had to get far away from it before I knew celebrating it was more about the Italian stuff than Columbus himself. And many of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day ideas don’t take that into consideration at all, because either they don’t know (most likely) or don’t care (also likely, but perhaps less so). It would seem there could be a way to accommodate both interpretations, but it will take a LOT of dialogue between people who aren’t interested, and who would represent them if they were?

  5. We have eliminated Washington and Lincoln’s individual holidays and created one presidents day celebration so that we can celebrate whatever president one cares to. The creation of the generic holiday destroys why we celebrated Washington and Lincoln in the first place. It is no wonder that most people know so little about our history.

    The notion that we can indiscriminately exchange one day of remembrance for another suggests an absolute disregard for the premise of such holiday’s. What if in the age of Metoo we decide that MLK day is offensive to women because he was a known philanderer and we eliminate his day of remembrance. Does anyone believe that African Americans would not be rightfully pissed off?

    If we would not eliminate a holiday to remember the contributions of an African American why can we think it acceptable to eliminate one that was created to honor an Italian explorer that precipitated greater exploration of the new world which led to the creation of this nation.

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