Goodbye, Columbus

It’s America’s least-favorite holiday, created by those who favor myth as history. Columbus Day.

America has a lot to reckon with in terms of its history, author Roland Merullo writes today in the Boston Globe.

While it’s clear that our moral consciousness has evolved — behavior once endorsed by queens and bishops, presidents and popes, has become obviously evil in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans — we retain a tendency toward blind hero-worship.

Athletes, politicians, CEOs, and celebrities of all stripes are admired for their successes while we often ignore their gross mistreatment of others, and of the earth.

Speaking as one Italian-American, I’ll have no problem when statues to Columbus are removed from the public eye. And I won’t mind at all if the second Monday in October is no longer a holiday that bears his name.

It will bother me, though, if the grit, talent, and generosity of millions of Italian-Americans is no longer recognized.

I could mention Enrico Fermi and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra, DiMaggio, Sinatra, De Niro, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, but I’d rather honor the nameless ones who kept house and raised kids, who toiled in shoe and textile factories and carved stone and worked the mines in Appalachia.

Italian-Americans endured mockery and exclusion, then watched their culture — so rich in the arts, sciences, and human warmth — reduced to mob stereotypes and Jersey Shore goons. We deserve a special day.

But 60 percent of those surveyed say a Monday holiday for Columbus is a good idea, the latest Marist Institute survey reports.

“He was a man ahead of his time, who brought two worlds together and began the process that led to the founding of this country,” Carl Anderson, the Knights of Columbus CEO, said in a news release. The pro-Columbus group sponsored the survey.

Next to the gorgeous Minnesota State Capitol is an inscription on a statue of Columbus that’s wrong.

Columbus wasn’t the first European in the New World. He didn’t discover it. But he did pave the way for exploration of it, along with enslaving Native Americans and introducing new diseases.

Is there a case for colonialism?

Bruce Gilley, a political-science professor at Portland State University, thinks so.

In an essay for Third World Quarterly, Gilley argued countries colonized by the west “did better than those that were not.” He said “it is high time to question this orthodoxy” that colonialism is bad.

Fifteen of the journal’s 34 members resigned in protest, the Washington Post reports today.

The essay has since disappeared.

“A full-throated defense of colonialism would stand out almost anywhere; it was especially surprising at Third World Quarterly. How did the paper find a home in a journal described by some of the scholars closest to it as ‘anticolonialist’ . . .?” the Chronicle of Higher Education asked.

How is it still a holiday?

  • jon

    1) Day off? Do people get the day off for columbus day (other than my mail carrier?)
    2) “Italian-Americans endured mockery and exclusion, then watched their culture — so rich in the arts, sciences, and human warmth — reduced to…”
    Let me tell you about my dutch-american american ancestors, people coming over from the old country endured mockery and exclusion then watched as their culture was reduced to stereotypes… We deserve a special day.
    Or the Irish, who came over and endured mockery, exclusion and reduction to stereo types
    Or the latinos today who endure mockery, exclusion, and reduction…
    Or there are the middle easterners who endure mockery, exclusion, reduction…
    The Japanese immigrants who endured mockery, exclusions, reduction…

    Do we all deserve a special day?
    Heck some of them had it far worse than the italian americans, there are some dark moments of american history in the ellipses above…

    Maybe we can recognize the value of all human life (in a way that columbus did not) instead of trying to seperate and segregate ourselves by country of origin and days to celebrate it?

  • ec99

    Despite his enormous fame, Columbus continues to be one of the most enigmatic figures in history; discussion continues regarding his origins, profession, and even where he’s buried. While supposedly Italian, not one piece of his is written in that language. One scholar has even proposed that he was a Portuguese nobleman and spy. Another that his voyages were meant to find a western route to the Holy Land.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      He wouldn’t be the only one to come from Portugal. Shortly after Columbus, Magellan came to Spain looking for funding to do what Columbus was going to do. Magellan was a Portuguese nobleman and some the Spanish were convinced he was a spy.
      A great book about Magellan’s voyage is Over the Edge of the World.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over_the_Edge_of_the_World

      • ec99

        Columbus was part of a cottage industry of explorers, going back at least to Prince Henry the Navigator. They took work where they could find a patron. Let’s not forget that great Englishman, John Cabot. Oops, he was Italian, Giovanni Cabotto.

  • Guest

    Do we honor folks for what they did or because they were good people?

    No question Columbus was a rotten person. No question he had more IMPACT on both the Old World and the New World than anybody else.

    CAN we say this person did a great thing, even while he was not a great person?

    I actually take comfort that flawed people can achieve great things. I have never expected every person we recognize is flawless.

    • What did he do that Leif Erickson didn’t?

      • Barton

        kill a bunch of people in the Caribbean?

      • Jerry

        Literally change the world, if not in a way that was good. Leif really had no lasting impact.

        • >>Literally change the world<<

          Through the genocide of the indigenous people he contacted…

          • Jerry

            You don’t have to be good to be important. And there is a big difference between acknowledging that someone is important and honouring them as a person.

          • Are you advocating keeping the Columbus Day holiday to acknowledge that he was “important” even if he was, by all accounts, a terrible person who did terrible things?

          • Jerry

            That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m all for changing the holiday. I just think it is wrong to imply that Columbus did not have a tremendous effect on the course of world history. Only two discoveries of this continent really matter: the first one over the Bering land bridge, and Columbus. Leif Ericsson, St. Brendan, the Chinese(?), Basque fisherman; they all had no lasting legacy.

      • Guest

        HE was the one who spread the news, again more IMPACT…..to the countries that wrote the history books 🙂

        • RBHolb

          Imagine if the Vinland Sagas had been written in Latin, rather than in Norse. Or if Basque fishermen had not been so tight-lipped about where they were getting all that cod.

        • // HE was the one who spread the news

          That he reached Asia (the “Indies”)?

    • Rob

      How about this: Let’s honor people who did significant things and who were also of good character. A shorter list, but that’s OK.

      • Guest

        Good Character for their times or times today? IF I dig up some dirt on X, can we all agree to use the thoughts of the book 1984 and change history’s recognition of “worthy” people?

        My vote is to recognize the achievement AND inform folks of the whole story. Much like the Capitol paintings. Leave them AND add info on how inaccurate the depiction is.

        We can remember an occasion without admiration.

        • ec99

          “Good Character for their times or times today?”

          Aye, there’s the rub. Presentism seems to be the rule today. People expect Columbus, a man of the late Middle Ages, to think like us.

          • So what are we honoring exactly. The thinking of the times?

            The statues mostly went up in the 1930s.

          • ec99

            A myth…much like that of the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, and the like.

      • Jerry

        Pretty much nobody before 1950 gets on that list

  • Guest

    FYI, most educated folks knew the earth was a sphere, the question was how big. Had Columbus known the true size he would have realized west was the long way.

    • Jerry

      He became famous, because he is bad at math.

      • jon

        And basic research… he supposedly studied Eratosthenes, and opted to trust a map from Toscanelli rather than try to recreate the experiment of Eratosthenes… Classic case of picking and choosing data based on what you hope is right… And we teach our kids about this guy as something other than a cautionary tale…

        • Jerry

          Is there anything more American than getting rich and famous despite being wrong in almost every way? Failing upward? Today he would be president.

  • Much like Lincoln and Washington’s Birthday has been combined into a President’s Day Holiday, I don’t see why we don’t make Columbus Day into Explorer’s Day. Honor the astronauts, Leif Erickson and yes, Columbus too. Honor the spirit of exploration.

    • That’s a great idea.

    • Rob

      Don’t forget the women adventurers — Amelia Earhart for one.

    • Kassie

      Minneapolis is celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day today, not Columbus Day. I think that makes the most sense.

    • crystals

      I like your idea in spirit but the same underlying issue largely still applies, at least here on Earth – many “explorers” claimed their fame (and territory) by claiming discovery of land that was already someone else’s. I’m fine with calling it Explorer’s Day so long as we actually do the real work of talking about who was doing the exploring and who was on the receiving end of it.

      • Jerry

        Doing that real work is hard. It is so much easier to dumb it down to an elementary school level and not accept any new information people try to teach later.

  • Gary F

    So we are going to pay too much for mattresses, cars and appliances?

  • Rob

    Interesting to see that Noam Chomsky was opposed to the retraction of Gilley’s piece, and instead felt that it was an opportunity for scholarly rebuttals to be made in response. I’m a Noam fan, but IMHO his position on this issue is a head-scratcher.

    • ec99

      Perhaps Chomsky is lamenting the fact that it’s far easier to simply obliterate an unpopular opinion than take the time to rebut it.

      • OTOH, how much more discussion and rebuttal is really needed for this? The fact that information about genocide and colonialism has filtered down to the general public seems to point to an unnecessary academic exercise.

        • RBHolb

          // OTOH, how much more discussion and rebuttal is really needed for this?

          The fact that the article was written and published would seem to answer your question.

          • It strikes me as the same sort of article that is occasionally “published” by climate deniers.

  • AL287

    Here’s an idea:

    Why don’t we stop digging up dirt on every major holiday and just ENJOY the holiday if you are lucky enough to have the day off?

    If you do have the day off, why not get in touch with a friend you’ve been neglecting of late? Invite them to lunch (No technology allowed!) and catch up.

    Go to one of the state parks and enjoy the fall colors and the change of season.

    Take a drive up U.S. 61 to the North Shore or down to Red Wing and Winona.

    Take one long last look at your garden and landscape before the frost does away with all that beauty and your carefully planted selections..

    Make it an inclusive holiday instead of an excluding one.

    • Or maybe read a history book.

      • AL287

        If you can find one that’s accurate.

    • >>just ENJOY the holiday if you are lucky enough to have the day off?<<

      You ENJOY Memorial Day?

      OK then…

    • RBHolb

      Why do we have named holidays then? Why a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or a Presidents’ Day?

      Don’t we have them to commemorate our heritage? Or is our heritage reducible down to appliance blow-out sales and excuses for long drives?

      • AL287

        And what, exactly is wrong with a long relaxing drive or a trip to a state park?

        I think both of these are excellent ways to get away from the rat race, too much time online and a host of other modern conveniences and reconnect with our heritage (state parks) and get some “me” time.

        When I go visit my son’s family, I disconnect for a while and enjoy my grandson and all the joys that implies. I also enjoy the long drive down to La Crescent along the Mississippi.

        I used to take 52 and 90 to go there but now I stick with U.S. 61. It’s a slower pace and I can take in the scenery at the same time.

        • RBHolb

          Then let’s have a random holiday, like the do in England. Call it a Bank Holiday, and shut everything down for no particular reason.

          I’m fine with that. Let’s just not pretend it has anything to do with anything.

          PS I love the drive down 61, too.

  • This always needs posting on this particular holiday:

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day

  • Rob

    The Knights have a weird relationship with Columbus. We half defend him, and half admit that he did some horrible things and try to shove him under the rug….I look forward to when we finally admit that we no longer need to defend his hoor

  • Brian Simon

    Why do we insist on reevaluating historical figures with modern morals? Dud Columbus know he was introducing disease to the new world? Did he enslave and slaughter native peoples? Certainly those are results of his voyage, but can we not celebrate his accomplishment while acknowledging the more tragic and perhaps unintended consequences?

    • Jerry

      He actually did personally slaughter and enslave native peoples

      • ec99

        A reflection of what had been going on in Europe for centuries, if not longer.

        • RBHolb

          And we don’t celebrate it today.

      • Brian Simon

        Same question applies; that was considered to be the normal way of things at the time – why do we insist on evaluating him against modern standards of morality?

        • It wasn’t normal in Hispaniola

          • Jerry

            Slavery and warfare were pretty prevelant in the pre-Columbian Americas. Again, not defending Columbus here, just don’t need to romanticise things.

        • Rob

          It was only normal for the conquerors, enslavers and genocide committers. For those at the business end of a harquebus or a chain, not so much.

    • Because we know and the monument changes its meaning as we become more intelligent.

      Also because we begin to finally understand that there’s more to historical perspective than the white version of it. It’s safe to say the people who were enslaved didn’t want to be enslaved AT THE TIME. But the nature of white supremacy is we only consider history to be the white European perspective of it.

      • Brian Simon

        No argument there; I’m all for exploring & recognizing the differing perspectives on history. Perhaps my point is too subtle; that Columbus was not an outlier for his time and culture.

        • Rob

          That’s an even sadder point.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        If you want to be precise, its the white Christian/Catholic European perspective. Remember that 1492 was also the year that Spain’s new monarchs expelled the Jews.

  • Karl Crabkiller

    I find it ironic that the erection on monuments to Columbus were actively protested by white supremacist origination’s (KKK) in the 1920’s.

    • Most of the Columbus monuments were actually erected by Italian American associations (as was the Capitol monument) to try to erase the stigma of Italian Americans at the time. They were not considered to be “real” Europeans as enshrined by the KKK.

  • Tyler

    The Oatmeal’s take on Chris: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/columbus_day

  • Mike Worcester

    I don’t know about you folks, but I’m celebrating Thanksgiving in honor of my Canadian ancestors. 🙂

    • RBHolb

      Tim Horton’s should be running specials.

      In England, they say they celebrate Thanksgiving on July 4.

  • I am sorry am i the only one that sees Americans as terrorists? They seem to all think that if something hurts someone’s feelings it should be torn down, hidden or destroyed.. all this PC crud.. No one has a backbone anymore.. Confederate statues, Columbus Day, Columbus claim to america, Italian heritage, Black lives matter.. The list can go on.. and on.. and on.. I am Italian, and want nothing to do with this.. Ruining history, and rewriting america because it doesn’t fit your PC lifestyle is just plain stupid..

    What am i supposed to sing now.. “In 1492 Columbus killed some indigenous people.. Fowgetaboutit”

  • jon

    So one of my Japanese counterparts at work told me they couldn’t make it to a meeting today because it was a national holiday there…

    Happy Health and Sports day!

    Internet tells me it was started when the first olympics was held in japan the first in asia, and is basically now celebrated with school field days, three legged races and bean bag toss type games.

  • TGB

    Should we begin to scrutinize all historical actors through the lens of modern Western values, ethics, and knowledge? Columbus sailed through waters believed to be inhabited by monsters, gods, and maybe the end of the earth; that was their understanding at the time. Columbus encountered a people who were 2000 years behind Western civilization, all knowledge at that point lead Columbus to believe they were savages.

    Are we going to do this with each historical figure? Ghandi and MLK Jr., were both womanizers and adulterers, many Presidents and founders owned slaves, should we dismantle America? Muhammad was a pedophile, disband Islam? Where does it end?

    • Rob

      Let’s just stop the mythologizing and venerating altogether.

  • TGB

    Should we begin to scrutinize all historical actors through the lens of modern Western values, ethics, and knowledge? Columbus sailed through waters believed to be inhabited by monsters, gods, and maybe the end of the earth; that was their understanding at the time. Columbus encountered a people who were 2000 years behind Western civilization, all knowledge at that point lead Columbus to believe they were savages.

    Are we going to do this with each historical figure? Ghandi and MLK Jr., were both womanizers and adulterers, many Presidents and founders owned slaves, should we dismantle America? Muhammad was a pedophile, disband Islam? Where does it end?

    • Jerry

      Nobody thought they were going to find monsters, gods, and the end of the earth, they thought they were going to run out of water and starve. Which they were lucky to run into islands that nobody thought was there. Columbus wasn’t smarter than everyone else, he was just more persistent in his wrongness.

  • There’s a good essay in Eric Black Ink (Minnpost) “Why we can’t go back to the version of ‘Christopher Columbus’ that we learned in school”.