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?