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
Scott Carpenter died last week, at the age of 88. Did you notice? Did you even remember who Scott Carpenter was?
I remember who he was and what he did, but I didn’t know that he had died. The world stops when the actor who played Tony Soprano dies, but an aged American hero and explorer? The news media says “Meh.” If Carpenter was still famous or a celebrity at all, it was only in the vague, foggy sense that obscure rock artists from the 60’s and expired pop icons are famous. I think Tony Dow, Barbara Feldon and Mama Cass are about as familiar to today’s public as Scott Carpenter, if not more. I just asked my son, who is 18 and better schooled in history and culture than most of his contemporaries. He knew Mama Cass was a member of the Mamas and the Pappas. The rest? Crickets.
Yet Scott Carpenter was, unlike those people, important. He was one of the original Mercury astronauts, and in 1961, he orbited the Earth. After he left NASA he became a different kind of explorer, challenging “inner space,” the ocean’s mysterious depths. He launched an undersea habitation called Sealab II, where he and three other men conducted experiments on how well humans function in a high-pressure undersea conditions for extended periods. Carpenter was a deep-water pioneer, mining on the sea bottom and harvesting exotic fish and other sea creatures. He salvaged and refloated a sunken jet fighter; he built an undersea petroleum-exploration platform.
Scott Carpenter, however, wasn’t famous by the time he died, because one of his fellow astronauts and good friends, John Glenn, orbited the Earth before him. Glenn went on to become a U.S. Senator based on his fame and heroic reputation (it helped that he was a combat pilot and decorated military hero as well). Carpenter did something important, dangerous, selfless, difficult and heroic, but he did it second, after John Glenn. We don’t remember second, and the distance between the accolades and honors heaped on #1 and the shrugs that follow #2 is disproportionate and unfair. Continue reading
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. Continue reading