Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbus Day

It’s Columbus Day, which means we follow the quaint American tradition of closing down the banks, advertising tires on sale, and grousing about what an awful person Columbus was and why we have a holiday named after him. Holidays have been founded on much, much worse.

Anti-Columbus fervor seems to have reached an all-time high this year; not sure why. There was some damning new evidence that Columbus wasn’t all that great of a guy (what with the mutilating torture and genocide) back in 2006, and it’s just now filtering out into the cultural patchwork. Well-known cartoonist The Oatmeal has an appeal to ditch Columbus in favor of revered Bartolome de Las Casas that has been making the rounds, which probably adds to the fuel.

For the record, I’m for changing the holiday. I think single-person holidays are generally a bad idea specifically for this reason; our heroes are often flawed, and it is not until later when attitudes change and new evidence is released that people realize how much of a dickhole they really are. Christopher Columbus was a pretty good explorer, but once he got to the New World he proved to be a rotten administrator, an uninspiring leader, and a greedy, morally bankrupt awful human being.

Now, every nation on earth has their horrible yet venerated leaders; people who did good, but had some bad qualities as well. We usually handwave these away as “the context of the times,” or “the ends justify the means,” both of which can be valid (depending on the transgression, of course). And while everyone in the back of their mind knew that Columbus was kind of a jerk, we didn’t really know the extent of his assholishness until the last decade or so. 

Still, a lot of things people are holding against Columbus are a bit unfair. Specifically:

  • Genocide of the Indians: While Columbus was quite unkind to the natives of Hispanolia, historical revisionists are keen to dump the entirety of the North American purge of Native Americans at Columbus’s feet. While he was horrible from a human rights standpoint, his direct hand influenced relatively few of them. So Columbus can rightly be held responsible for bringing Europe to the New World, but that’s hardly enough to warrant accusing him of continent-wide destruction. If it hadn't been Columbus, it would have been someone else.
  • Not Really Discovering America: Yes, yes, we get it—the Vikings were here first. But detractors miss the point: Columbus found America specifically for European trade and colonization (Europe being more or less the most powerful entity on the planet at the time), thus changing the course of history more than pretty much any other act. Yeah, Leif Ericson was first, but then they went home. They barely ranked a blip in the overall grand scheme of history. Columbus’s actions—not just for navigation, but politically and culturally—was humongous, for better or worse.
  • A lot of people bring up the point that, no, Columbus and Europeans did not really believe that the world was flat. And while this is true, it also discounts exactly how treacherous the journey still was. Yeah, they knew the earth was round, but they still had no idea what was beyond a certain point. Columbus somehow managed to sail three ships full of sailors who had no idea if they would survive—more so than usual, anyway. So, yeah, it’s not like they were completely ignorant of cartography, but that doesn’t mean the voyage wasn’t unprecedented, difficult, and—yes—courageous.
It is difficult to really have a position on things like historical revisionism. New information is discovered all the time, and this most certainly should factor in how we treat our historical figures. On the other hand, a lot of people love to heap unwarranted and exaggerated blame on our history because it suits their ideological needs. In the case of Columbus, it splits the difference—new information has shown us that he is an unrepentant scumbag, but that also shouldn’t diminish his real and history-changing accomplishments.

Do I think he holiday will go away? Absolutely not. Purging a federal holiday is nearly impossible; it would be like banning gifts for Christmas. Will it be changed to something else, probably something like Explorer’s Day or (my preference) Discoverer’s Day (to encompass science as well as exploration)? I can see that happening. We should totally have a holiday celebrating science. The question remains, though: will the Knights of Columbus let us?

The Pledge: Christopher Columbus was an awful person who should not have his own holiday, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t important.

Edit: A lot of anti-Columbus sentiment (and, sadly, a lot of bad history) comes from a book called A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. This book brings a unique and needed perspective of history; unfortunately, it's also badly researched history. It mainly consists of accounts from the "common" people but without any context, sort of like if we had written a history based solely off of Facebook statuses. While I don't want to dismiss the accounts listed in the book, most people don't realize that from an academic perspective the Columbus account presented there is not optimal. There is no doubt that most of it happened, but People's History is a bad source to cite for your arguments, and appears to be the one The Oatmeal uses.

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