Monday, October 8, 2018

Sailing the ocean blue was only a start: Columbus Day more complex than it looks

Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus, 
by Sebastiano del Piombo (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

   Columbus Day, again, and time for the ritual re-staging of the Italians v. Indians skirmish, two marginalized groups fighting over a shred of dignity. I wish the Italians could gracefully give in and find somebody else to honor—hint: Fermi—but they are as yet  incapable of that. Time will do the dirty work, as it always does: I can't picture the younger generation caring about their special day, but maybe I give them too much credit. Holidays come and go; Columbus Day has passed its sell-by date.

     Once upon a time, American history was a simple story we told to feel good about ourselves. George Washington chopped the cherry tree; Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Problems arrived only to be solved—slaves were hardly mentioned until right before Lincoln freed them.
     The nation was run by white Anglo-Saxon men, and naturally they cast themselves in all the hero roles.
     Eventually, the forgotten supporting cast grew tired of being in the shadows—women got the vote, blacks demanded civil rights, immigrant groups inserted themselves into the American story. That's why Monday is Columbus Day, one of just 10 federal holidays.
     "I'll tell you how it happened," said Dominic Di Frisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans. "The Italian immigrants arrived after the German immigrants, after the Irish immigrants. They saw events like the Von Steuben parade and decided they needed a political hero. Christopher Columbus is not much of a figure in Italy. They said, my God, this country is named after him—the District of Columbia, Columbus in Ohio, in Georgia. He was the hero, a symbol of Italian pride, the first immigrant."
     Columbus was on coins and stamps. Chicago held its World's Columbian Exposition.
     So what changed? Why is Columbus now frequently a villain? Well, the same process that put Columbus Day on our calendar—heretofore marginalized people insisting their part in the story be told—kept going, to include Native Americans. They don't feel Columbus discovered anything—the Indians knew they were here all along—and given how quickly the Europeans began murdering, enslaving and pushing aside indigenous peoples here, to them there isn't much to celebrate, which is why there's a card widely posted on Facebook: "Let's celebrate Columbus Day by walking into someone's house and telling them we live there now." A fair synopsis of what happened, minus the genocide.
     And yet perhaps because I learned the 1970s history catechism, where national unity trumps the complaints of each individual group, I feel for the Italians, who just want to be part of the story and celebrate themselves without having to wipe the blood of the slaughtered off their hands every October.
     What bothers me most about the "Let's celebrate . . . " card is the casual declaration of free-floating guilt that we liberals seem to have mastered. What are you saying? You're sorry the nation was founded? At least Native Americans have a reason to say that, though, like everybody else, their narrative is also self-serving—heavy on "Dances with Wolves," light on the hearts-torn-out-atop-pyramids-to-honor-
     The Aztecs were the most violent state in recorded human history, so it isn't as if, had Columbus never arrived, the American Eden would remain to this day. To post that card is hypocrisy. Europe's still there. Go back if you feel so guilty about living here. I sure don't. My ancestors never killed an Indian or owned a slave. They were selling rags in Poland when all this was going on, and America was the golden door a handful fled through before the most cultured and sophisticated society in Europe put the rest in ovens. That still doesn't prompt me to show up at German Unity Day and wave pictures of Auschwitz. The past is a lousy place to live.
     So I have sympathy for Italians on Columbus Day; though really—Columbus, Balbo, Berlusconi—there is a pattern of clinging to bad choices here.
     "He was one of the great navigators of history, and we've taken that away from him," said DiFrisco, "and reduced him to some kind of bloodthirsty, syphilis-spreading marauder, and that is not the case."
     Not the entire case. We live in a time when heroes are ritualistically tarnished and, frankly, everybody is better off with the more accurate, though less flattering, narrative than with the pretty story. It's easier for me to grasp the current inability of the government to confront our problems when I consider that it was formed on a lie—"All men are created equal"—that skirted the issue of slavery, kicking it down the pike to explode 75 years later. Ignoring our biggest problems is an American tradition since 1776.
     "Columbus Day is an Italian pride holiday," said Di Frisco. "We decry that fewer and fewer schools have it off. Here's a man who planted the flag of Christianity on the shores of the new world and teachers are systemically taking the image of Columbus we all knew and they've turned him into a villain."
     Speaking of the flag of Christianity . . . but space grows short. Happy Columbus Day.

                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 10, 2011


  1. Did any of those three engage in ritual human sacrifices, cut out and consume still-beating hearts, or play soccer with human heads and skulls? What the Aztecs lacked in sheer numbers of victims (tens of thousands, rather than millions), they surely made up for in their ferocity and their literal thirst for blood (yes, the Aztecs supposedly drank it, warm and fresh, as a means of honoring their gods).

    1. I believe it was the wife of the commandant of Buchenwald that had the tattooed skin of some of those executed made into lampshades.
      So I have no doubt, that some Nazis did eat parts of their victims.
      As John Powers wrote below: "Nazis, Russians and Mississippians had been taught better,"
      In fact, the Germans were considered to be the most scientifically advanced country in the world & were for the most part, very civilized, up to 1933, when they went insane as a society!

    2. That would be Ilsa Koch, labeled "The Bitch of Buchenwald" by the inmates of that institution. An infamous Seventies movie about her had to be renamed "Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS"--because "Bitch" was deemed to be unsuitable. I've never seen it...but that title is quite unforgettable, as is a visit to THE Holocaust Museum in D.C. It's a literally a trip into hell...and back again. When you come out into the sunlight, you feel like you've come up from a sewer.

      You see...and smell...the piles of shoes and eyeglasses and human hair...and reasonable facsimiles of lampshades.No mention is made of victims being eaten. But the SS had their own secret rituals...and nearly all of them are now who really knows for sure?

  2. I believe a number of cities have replaced it with "Indigenous People" day. OK with me. but I understand why Italians -- and some non-Italian Catholics -- are pissed. Trying to apply modern sensibilities to historical figures is ususlly a fraught enterprise. Have just finished wading through a 900 plus page biography of Oliver Cromwell, and found him a somewhat more sympathetic figure than the one I had grown up envisioning. And learned how views of him differ: an arch-villain to the Irish for having harshly put down a rebellion; a hero to British Jews for having readmitted them several centuries after their expulsion -- Sigmund Freud named one of his sons "Oliver" in his honor.

    Much wisdom in "the past is a lousy place to live."


  3. Don't forget Mao, Early 20th century Turks and Mississippi. It's like claiming Sela Ward is the most beautiful women on earth, yeah, maybe it's a photo finish, dead heat with a couple million others. If numbers are the gauge, Stalin and Mao are one and two, not necessarily in that order. For pure evil don't rule out Mississippi. They knew better, claimed to be better, while claiming themselves disciples of Christ, yet they murdered children and other innocents. Even the Mafia drew the line at murdering a man in his driveway with his children inside the house.

  4. Nazis, Russians and Mississippians had been taught better, Aztecs I'm not so sure. there is a difference between immoral for personal gain and the amoral acts of an uncivilized society. Moses got creation wrong because he was a Bronze Age man ignorant of science, human sacrifice as a religious event in a primitive society seems like an ignorance of norms that most modern men have settled on.

  5. Columbus, Ohio, is the largest city named after Christopher (or, as the kids might call him, Topher)...and they just canceled their parade and renamed the holiday (as a few other Ohio cities have already done).

    They have also tried to downplay the holiday by opting to keep local government offices open today. Columbus will close them on November 11 instead, as a way of honoring veterans.

    Naturally, the Italians are pissed. A few of the more outraged among them are calling the newly-named holiday "Indignant Peoples' Day"...or even "Indigent Peoples' Day"...ouch and double ouch!

  6. These are the kinds of arguments that nobody can win.



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