Goodbye, Columbus*

Monday October 13th is Columbus Day–a state and federal holiday, observed in New Jersey by the cessation of most business across the state (government offices, schools, colleges, universities, banks, and most other businesses or agencies are closed–except, of course, where frantic Columbus Day sales are taking place). The implication would seem to be that Christopher Columbus is a person morally on par with Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the veterans of our foreign wars, the servicemen and -women of our armed forces, and last but not least, Jesus Christ.

What did he do? As far as popular historiography is concerned, the answer is simple: he discovered America. In 1492, he sailed the ocean blue in the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria. And, lo, America came into existence, or at least came into the domain of human knowledge. Unfortunately, popular historiography has been saying the same damn thing now for decades, in defiance of a more sophisticated and accurate historiography that’s been trying to get a hearing for at least two decades, and realistically, for a lot longer. Most of the rest of North America has gotten the message. But not us. (To be fair, Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota have opted out of Columbus Day. Pathetically, Spain and Italy–with even less to brag about–are even more enthusiastic than we are.)

I haven’t yet gotten around to reading Kirkpatrick Sale’s classic text, The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbia Legacy (1990), but I have read, and would highly recommend reading, Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other  (1984). Don’t be turned off–if you’re apt to be turned off–by the post-Modern-sounding subtitle. The dedication page is pretty straightforward:

The captain Alonso Lopez de Avila, brother-in-law of the adelantado Montejo, captured, during the war in Bacalan, a young Indian woman of lovely and gracious appearance. She had promised her husband, fearful lest they should kill him in war, not to have relations with any other man but him, and so no persuasion was sufficient to prevent her from taking her own life to avoid being defiled by another man; and because of this they had her thrown to the dogs. –Diego de Landa, Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, 32

I dedicate this book to the memory of a Mayan woman devoured by dogs.

That passage isn’t about Columbus per se, but what Columbus did hardly differs from it in any essential way.

Columbus’s motive, in his own words (as quoted by Todorov):

At the moment when I undertook to discover the Indies, it was with the intention of beseeching the King and Queen, our Sovereigns, that they might determine to spend the revenues possibly accruing from the Indies for the conquest of Jerusalem; and it is indeed this thing which I have asked of them. (p. 11).

My desire was to pass by no single island without taking possession of it. (p. 45)

His first action, upon encountering the natives:

He called upon them to bear faith and to witness that he, before all men, was taking possession of the said island–as in fact he then took possession of it–in the name of the King and of the Queen, his Sovereigns. (p. 28)

Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to Columbus that they didn’t understand his language, and he didn’t understand theirs. What happens next is kind of predictable:

These are, indeed, very wild people, and my men are very importunate; finally I took possesion of lands belonging to this quibian [village chief]. As soon as he saw the houses we had built and a lively trade going on, he determined to burn everything and to kill us all. (p. 46).

So there’s a war. Guess who wins? And what the victors do?

They would make good and industrious servants…They are fit to be ruled…(p. 46)

From here one might send, in the name of the Holy Trinity, as many slaves as could be sold as well as a quantity of [timber]. If the information I have is correct, it appears that we could sell four thousand slaves, who might be worth twenty millions and more. (p. 47)

I can’t summarize the whole thing, of course; I encourage you to get a copy of the book and read it for yourself. But perhaps the best one-line summary is Todorov’s apt claim that Columbus, “discovered America but not the Americans” (p. 49).

At any rate, if we’re going to “celebrate” Columbus Day, we may as well be clear about what we’re celebrating. We’re celebrating the words and deeds of a theocratic conqueror and slave-merchant whose fundamental ambition was to use the wealth of the “Indies” to re-conquer the Holy Land–in other words, someone who wanted to enslave the people of one continent to put the people of another continent to the sword. It’s not really clear what part of that is worth celebrating, and no one interested in celebrating this holiday seems to want to talk about it in any straightforward fashion.  For all of the brave talk about “diversity” and “multiculturalism” we’ve heard over the past few decades, and the fears that sensitivity to other cultures has all “gone too far,” that cheap set of evasions is where things still stand. We’re the last country on the continent to be able to look the truth about Christopher Columbus in the face and deal with it in a rational way.

Allan Bloom opened his 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind with this famous passage:

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending…The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. (p. 25)

There’s some (non-relativistic) truth to that. Tellingly though, Bloom continues with the polemical claim that it’s a mistake to the combine intensive study of “the traditional American grounds for a free society” with the intensive study of “non-Western” cultures for fear of contaminating the former by the latter:

One of the techniques of opening  young people up is to require a college course in a non-Western culture. Although many of the persons teaching such courses are real scholars and lovers of the areas they study, in every case I have seen this requirement–when there are so many other things that can and should be learned but are not required, when philosophy and religion are no longer required–has a demagogic intention. The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better. It is again not the content that counts but the lesson to be drawn. (pp. 35-36)

Obvious questions spring to mind. How many cases had Bloom actually seen? Why would the cases he’d seen determine the very nature of the requirement? If the content is to be ignored, where does the lesson come from? And what, at any rate, is the basis for the claim that “philosophy and religion are no longer required”?

But never mind the details. The thing to focus on is the deliberate, studied parochialism implicit in Bloom’s conception of education: students are to try to grasp the meaning of “natural rights,” but to conceive of it only as the traditional American grounds for a free society; they’re to apply it only to us, and study no one and nothing else that might challenge how they conceive of rights, or might challenge how they apply the principle to cases. Somehow, despite this, Bloom expects to conquer relativism.

The approach was bound to fail, and in Columbus Day, we have the clearest case of its failure. Columbus Day is a holiday for people who can manage to spout the rhetoric of “natural rights”  on the Fourth of July; play lip service to racial equality on MLK Day or Lincoln’s birthday; spend Memorial Day valorizing those who died to overturn slavery in the Civil War as well as those who fought genocide in the Second World War; go to Midnight Mass every Christmas Eve to honor Jesus’s Crucifixion at the hands of the Roman imperium–and then, on the second Monday of every October, unapologetically intone pieties about a (literally) racist imperialist slavedriver who inaugurated a veritable genocide on this continent. It’s a holiday, in other words, for people who have memorized the mantras of “the American creed” but have not grappled in any serious way with the moral realities or complexities of cross-cultural interaction, whether as a historical matter or in the present day. And given the staying power of this holiday, that seems to amount to a lot of people.

I’d like, at some point, to be able to educate (part of) a generation out of such claptrap. It won’t be done Bloom’s way, and it won’t be done quietly. But I’d like to get it done, even if it means having to go in to work and teach class on (what used to be) Columbus Day. I like having the day off as much as anyone, but Columbus Day is the the epitome of a vacation day with a guilty conscience. Rename it and re-conceive of it, as other countries have done, and I’m glad to take the day off. But until then, Columbus Day should remain a day that deserves ridicule, censure, and rejection. At some point, a showdown will have to be had with its supporters. And that day, I predict, will be a real day of discovery.

*I changed the original (anemic) title of this post a few minutes after hitting “Publish.”

10 thoughts on “Goodbye, Columbus*

  1. Pingback: Columbus Day needs to go, but… | Notes On Liberty

  2. Well said — every word of it. At one point, Columbus’ men required the natives to gather a certain amount of gold on a regular basis, and if they failed, then their hands were cut off, and strung around their necks. What I don’t understand is how and why high schools around this country fail to teach kids these facts in their history classes. Of course, the answer is probably that, in many districts, the teachers share the very same American mythology. On a related note, Bloom’s argument is very telling in a certain respect. The argument seems to go like this: “If you expose students to lots of different ways of thinking, then you thereby automatically lead them to some sort of relativism.” The mistake here is to ignore the possibility of teaching critical thinking, and teaching students that they can use it to compare claims, and thereby improve their chances of having true beliefs. In this respect, Bloom’s mistake seems to be quite common outside of philosophy, by people of every political persuasion. Many of my own colleagues here, in other Departments, seem to think that, at bottom, there is simply a war between rival views, with no way to adjudicate it objectively or neutrally. I think that is mistaken, and this is one are in which I think philosophy could contribute a lot to our public life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Obviously, I agree. I’d add that the uncomfortable-but-true part of the explanation for why high schools fail to teach kids the facts about Columbus is that the celebration of Columbus has become a matter of ethnic pride for Italian-Americans, and it’s nowadays quite difficult to (seem to) be critical of something that is central to someone’s ethnic identity, at least if the identity in question is that of some well-accredited ethnic group, and the challengers stand outside that group. Imagine making the case against Columbus in the schools of, say, Lodi, New Jersey where this statue of Columbus stands in the center of town. No matter how reasonably you put it, the anti-Columbus case would be heard as anti-Italian. I suspect that where Columbus Day isn’t celebrated, that’s because those states have large Native American populations and small Italian-American ones (clear enough for Hawaii, Alaska, and South Dakota; I don’t know about Oregon). What makes the argument about Columbus so intractable is the collision between identity politics on the one hand, and what seem like fairly obvious, objective moral judgments on the other.

      I think the crux of Bloom’s view is his denigration of Mill. “Liberalism without natural rights, the kind that we knew from John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, taught us that the only danger confronting us is being closed to the emergent, the new, the manifestations of progress. No attention had to be paid to the fundamental principles or the moral virtues that inclined men to live according to them” (Closing of the American Mind, pp. 29-30). Whatever you think of Mill, that’s an extraordinarily crude and inaccurate reading of him, and it’s no wonder that someone who read Mill that way would miss the point of what Mill says in the second chapter of On Liberty–as Bloom has. That’s what I think explains the denigration of critical thinking that you identify.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. I briefly considered having my class read this blog post this week as part of our sessions on our history textbook’s chapter, ‘European Exploration and Conquest.’ I decided against it in favor of just reading Columbus himself. The textbook includes a nice brief section on Columbus that brings out some of the reasons for controversy about him, but there’s nothing like hearing it from the man himself (besides, we try to read as many primary source documents in history as possible). So the plan is to read together in class from his journal entry on 11 Oct. 1492:

    At two hours after midnight the land appeared, from which they were about two leagues distant…Soon they saw naked people; and the Admiral went ashore in the armed launch, and Martin Alonso Pinzon and his brother Vicente Anes, who was captain of the Nina. The Admiral brought out the royal banner and the captains two flags with the green cross, which the Admiral carried on all the ships as a standard, with an F and a Y, and over each letter a crown, one on one side and the other on the other. Thus put ashore they saw very green trees and many ponds and fruits of various kinds. The Admiral called to the two captains and to the others who had jumped ashore and to Rodrigo Descobedo, the escrivano of the whole fleet, and to Rodrigo Sanchez de Segovia; and he said that they should be witnesses that, in the presence of all, he would take, as in fact he did take, possession of the said island for the king and for the queen his lords, making the declarations that were required, and which at more length are contained in the testimonials made there in writing. Soon many people of the island gathered there. What follows are the very words of the Admiral in his book about his first voyage to, and discovery of, these Indies. He says, in order that they would be friendly to us — because I recognized that they were people who would be better freed and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force — to some of them I gave red caps, and glass beads which they put on their chests, and many other things of small value, in which they took so much pleasure and became so much our friends that it was a marvel. Later they came swimming to the ships’ launches where we were and brought us parrots and cotton thread in balls and javelins and many other things, and they traded them to us for other things which we gave them, such as small glass beads and bells. In sum, they took everything and gave of what they had very willingly. But it seemed to me that they were a people very poor in everything. All of them go around as naked as their mothers bore them; and the women also, although I did not see more than one quite young girl. And all those that I saw were young people, for none did I see of more than 30 years of age. They are very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces. Their hair coarse — almost like the tail of a horse-and short…And some of them paint their faces, and some of them the whole body, and some of them only the eyes, and some of them only the nose. They do not carry arms nor are they acquainted with them, because I showed them swords and they took them by the edge and through ignorance cut themselves. They have no iron. Their javelins are shafts without iron and some of them have at the end a fish tooth…. All of them alike are of good-sized stature and carry themselves well. I saw some who had marks of wounds on their bodies and I made signs to them asking what they were; and they showed me how people from other islands nearby came there and tried to take them, and how they defended themselves; and I believed and believe that — they come here from tierrafirme to take them captive. They should be good and intelligent servants, for I see that they say very quickly everything that is said to them; and I believe that they would become Christians very easily, for it seemed to me that they had no religion. Our Lord pleasing, at the time of my departure I will take six of them from here to Your Highnesses in order that they may learn to speak…

    Part of the interest here is that this is how Columbus wanted to represent himself. We’ll see how my students react.


    • “Dude is pretty sketchy.”

      “Umm, that’s just theft.”

      “Well, if they don’t try to resist, it isn’t theft!”

      Then the bell rang. I’m looking forward to Locke next quarter.


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