Much of our national life can be defined according to frontier and hinterland attitudes. Take our two national pastimes, football and baseball. Football is a frontier game, because it has to do with the conquest of territory. The aim of the game is to invade the other team’s land and settle there until you’ve crossed the goal line. As on the frontier, time of possession is everything.
Football is a metaphor for land hunger, a ritualized reenactment of the westward movement, going back to colonial times. Look at the names of some of the teams in the NFL, the Patriots, the Redskins, the Cowboys, the Broncos, the Forty-Niners, the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Buffalo Bills, and the Oilers, all names connected with different stages of the frontier epic. Look at the way a first down is measured. Officials bring out the chains, which are a vestigial replica of the surveyors’ chains and a reminder of the men who marked off the wilderness, dividing it into ranges and townships and sections.
On their hundred-yard-long turf-covered universe, football players act out the conquest of the frontier. And just as they fought the taking of their land on the real frontier, Native Americans today protest the appropriation of their past on the football field, in the use of team names like the Redskins and Chiefs, and in the hoopla of fans painting their faces, wearing chicken-feather headdresses, and waving foam-rubber tomahawks. In the game itself there are emulations of Indian customs, such as the huddle, which is a stylized Indian pow-wow, and the gauntlet that each player must run upon entering the stadium.
Football breeds a defiant frontier attitude, because someone is out to get you and you’re not going to let him. As the late linebacker Lyle Alzado once said: “I don’t think there is anyone on earth who can kick my ass.” Another great linebacker, Lawrence Taylor, once said that his purest joy was to hit someone so hard he could see the “snot bubble out of his nose.” And here’s the Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka defining the frontier ethic as well as the game of football: “It’s people hittin’ each other, that what it’s all about. I’m tired of skill.” Skill gets taken for granted, while there’s a degree of physical punishment reminscent of life in the wilderness. The limits to that punishment are suggested by some of the penalties, such as “piling on,” “unnecessary roughness,” and my personal favorite, which has a colonial ring in its phrasing, “coming unabated at the quarterback when offsides.”
–Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (1993), p. 14.
In “honor” of Columbus Day, I thought I’d excerpt two interesting items I recently came across.
The first one is from the Introduction to Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (1958). Its relevance to Columbus Day will probably not be apparent until the end.
There are good reasons for dealing with Machiavelli in a series of Walgreen lectures. The United States of America may be said to be the only country in the world which was founded in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles. According to Machiavelli, the founder of the most renowned commonwealth of the world was a fratricide: the foundation of political greatness is necessarily laid in crime. If we can believe Thomas Paine, all governments of the Old World have an origin of this description; their origin was conquest and tyranny. But “the Independence of America [was] accompanied by a Revolution in the principles and practice of Governments”: the foundation of the United States was laid in freedom and justice. “Government founded on a moral theory, on a system of universal peace, on the indefeasible hereditary Rights of Man, is now revolving from west to east by a stronger impulse than the Government of the sword revolved from east to west.”* This judgment is far from being obsolete. While freedom is no longer a preserve of the United States, the United States is now the bulwark of freedom. And contemporary tyranny has its roots in Machiavelli’s thought, in the Machiavellian principle that the good end justifies every means. At least to the extent that the American reality is inseparable from the American aspiration, one cannot understand Americanism without understanding Machiavellianism which is its opposite.
But we cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that the problem is more complex than it appears in the presentation by Paine and his followers. Machiavelli would argue that America owes her greatness not only to her habitual adherence to the principles of freedom and justice, but also to her occasional deviation from them. He would not hesitate to suggest a mischievous interpretation of the Louisiana Purchase and of the fate of the Red Indians.** He would conclude that facts like these are an additional proof for his contention that there cannot be a great and glorious society without the equivalent of the murder of Remus by his brother Romulus. This complication makes it all the more necessary that we should try to reach an adequate understanding of the fundamental issue raised by Machiavelli. (pp. 13-14)
*Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, Introduction to Part II.
**Cf. Henry Adams, The First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, II, 56, 71-73, 254.
I won’t comment on this except to say that it’s kind of funny that we don’t celebrate Machiavelli Day and get a day off for it (May 3). I mean, he’s just as Italian as Christopher Columbus.
Incidentally, I forgot, in the first version of this post, to mention that Machiavelli explicitly invokes Columbus in the Introduction to the First Book of his Discourses on Livy:
Although the envious nature of men, so prompt to blame and so slow to praise, makes the discovery and introduction of any new principles and systems as dangerous almost as the exploration of unknown seas and continents, yet animated by that desire which impels me to do what may prove for the common benefit of all, I have resolved to open a new route, which has not yet been followed by any one, and may prove difficult and troublesome, but may also bring me some reward in the approbation of those who will kindly appreciate my efforts.
Machiavelli wrote that decades after Columbus’s voyage and for that matter Columbus’s death. In suggesting that his “new route” would redound to “the benefit of all,” he exploits the reader’s presumptive belief that Columbus’s voyage had had the same, or an analogous benefit. The new route he proposes simultaneously valorizes Columbus’s efforts while dehumanizing Columbus’s victims and excluding them from membership in the moral community or the common good. For that reason, I think we can safely read Machiavelli as providing the theoretical basis for Columbus’s depredations, something worth bearing in mind when one reads Columbus’s modern-day apologists (like this, this, this, and this.) Like Machiavelli, they claim to be opening new routes and new vistas for thought. As with Machiavelli, a remarkable number of the routes they open seem to lead to or rationalize mass death.
As Strauss points out, Machiavelli famously taught us that a prince ought to exterminate the families of rulers whose territory he securely wishes to possess (Strauss, p. 9, commenting on The Prince, chapter 7). Columbus seems to have put that precept into action well before Machiavelli managed to rationalize it in print:
The combined effects of Columbus’ forced labor regime, war, and slaughter resulted in the near-total eradication of 98% of the native Taino of Hispaniola. De las Casas records that when he first came to Hispaniola in 1508, “there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it….”
Poor Bartolome de las Casas. We still don’t believe it.
Columbus on the lookout for more people to kill and enslave, Main Street, Lodi, New Jersey
De Las Casas’s doxastic troubles bring me to my second Columbus Day item, Robert Frost’s “America Is Hard to See” (1951) a poem I just recently discovered while making my way through his collected poems.
Columbus may have worked the wind
A new and better way to Ind
And also proved the world a ball,
But how about the wherewithal?
Not just for scientific news
Had the Queen backed him for a cruise
Remember he had made the test
Finding the East by sailing West.
But had he found it?
Here he was
Without one trinket from Ormuz
To save the Queen from family censure
For her investment in his future.
There had been something strangely wrong
With every coast he tried along.
He could imagine nothing barrener.
The trouble was with him the mariner.
He wasn’t off a mere degree;
His reckoning was off a sea.
And to intensify the drama
Another mariner Da Gama
Came just then sailing into port
From the same general resort,
And with the gold in hand to show for
His claim it was another Ophir.
Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.
He might have fooled them in Madrid.
I was deceived by what he did.
If I had had my way when young
I should have had Columbus sung
As a god who had given us
A more than Moses’ exodus.
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.
For these none too apparent gains
He got no more than dungeon chains
And such posthumous renown
(A country named for him, a town,
A holiday) as where he is,
He may not recognize for his.
They say his flagship’s unlaid ghost
Still probes and dents our rocky coast
With animus approaching hate,
And for not turning out a strait
He has cursed every river mouth
From fifty north to fifty south.
Someday our navy I predict
Will take in tow this derelict
And lock him through Culebra Cut,
His eyes as good (or bad) as shut
To all the modern works of man
And all we call American
America is hard to see.
Less partial witnesses than he
In book on book have testified
They could not see it from outside—
Or inside either for that matter.
We know the literary chatter.
Columbus, as I say, will miss
All he owes to the artifice
Of tractor-plow and motor-drill.
To naught but his own force of will,
Or at most some Andean quake,
Will he ascribe this lucky break.
High purpose makes the hero rude:
He will not stop for gratitude.
But let him show his haughty stern
To what was never his concern
Except as it denied him way
To fortune-hunting in Cathay.
He will be starting pretty late.
He’ll find that Asiatic state
Is about tired of being looted
While having its beliefs disputed.
His can be no such easy raid
As Cortez on the Aztecs made.
When I read that, I knew what I had to do. I had to read that poem, in its entirety, on Columbus Day, at the foot of the statue of Christopher Columbus that sits in front of Borough Hall on Main Street in Lodi, New Jersey.
So I’ll be there noon this Monday for as long as it takes to get through the poem. Stop by if you’re in the area. I’ll be handing out free copies of the Frost poem to anyone who wants one. I’d hand out free copies of The Prince as well, if I could afford it. Maybe next year, when I’m rich and famous, after
conquering discovering a new world or something.
Postscript: This still has meaning, decades later:
Postscript, October 11, 2015: This Reuters piece, “U.S. Reassesses Columbus Day,” is worth reading. Predictably, the piece serves to underscore the fact that there are, apparently, no limits to ethnic-pride butthurt in this country:
New York City, with the country’s largest Italian American population at 1.9 million, attracts nearly 35,000 marchers and nearly 1 million spectators to its annual Columbus Day parade.
The Columbus Citizens Foundation, a non-profit that organizes the parade, says on its website the event “celebrates the spirit of exploration and courage that inspired Christopher Columbus’s 1492 expedition and the important contributions Italian-Americans have made to the United States.”
John Viola, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Italian American Foundation, said renaming Columbus Day dishonors the country’s 25 million Italian Americans and their ancestors. He said Italian Americans feel slighted by cities that are dropping Columbus Day.
“By default, we’re like the collateral damage of this trend,” he said.
In other words, it’s wrong to condemn imperialism, enslavement, and mass death because cannoli.
If they want to celebrate Italian pride, why not find an Italian worth celebrating, like Albertus Magnus, Galileo, or Verdi? If it has to be an Italian-American, why not Fermi, Cavalli-Sforza, or Anthony Fauci? If those guys aren’t sexy enough, how about Bon Jovi, Demi Lovato, or Joe Pesci? If they don’t do it for you, why not pick the sexiest Italian-American of all time, and dedicate the day to Chris Sciabarra? Even Verrazano would be preferable to Columbus: unlike Columbus, at least he made it to the landmass that would later become the United States. But the real question is why Italian-Americans feel the need to close the country down for a day in the name of the dubious ethical achievement of being Italian-American.
And if they get a day, why not every other ethnicity? In that case, as a South Asian-American, I hereby nominate November 2 as a new federal holiday in honor of Mahmud of Ghazni. Because if Mahmud hadn’t liberated Lahore from the Jats in 1023 AD, my family wouldn’t have had a place to go during the partition of India in 1947–and I wouldn’t even be here. And boy, would counterfactual non-existence (have) hurt my feelings. I leave the rest of the argument as an exercise.
Postscript, October 14, 2015. I just happened on this short piece by Jack Weatherford that captures the essence of the Columbus controversy, at least as I see it. Here’s a simultaneously amusing but depressing article on Columbus Day. Also worth reading, on a related (but different) topic, “Native Lives Matter, Too.”
I don’t think I can be accused of sympathies for Islamism (or Islam) any more than I can be accused of sympathy for communism (or Marxism). But there comes a point when “Western” criticism of Islamism becomes its own pathology, in the same way and for the same reasons that in the 1950s, McCarthyite anti-communism became its own pathology. Here’s a relatively mild but instructive example from a column by Thomas Friedman called “Freud and the Middle East.”
He starts reasonably enough:
When trying to make sense of the Middle East, one of the most important rules to keep in mind is this: What politicians here tell you in private is usually irrelevant. What matters most, and what explains their behavior more times than not, is what they say in public in their own language to their own people. As President Obama dispatches more U.S. advisers to help Iraqis defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, it is vital that we listen carefully to what the key players are saying in public in their own language about each other and their own aspirations.
Of course, if this were true, it would help to be able to understand what they “say in public in their own language to their own people.” Friedman somehow claims to understand what they’re saying but shows no evidence of understanding the languages they speak. (He apparently has a passable knowledge of Arabic, but I don’t think he knows Turkish, and Turkish is the language at issue in much of this column.) Instead, he quotes throughout from a translation service. The service, MEMRI, has its own political agenda, and translates selectively from a relatively narrow range of items. That limitation doesn’t stop Friedman from giving his readers the idea that he has his thumb on the pulse of the region. His claim, rather sparsely supported, is that Sunni Muslims all–or, well, almost all–covertly desire to re-establish the ancient caliphate, and thus (almost) all harbor covert admiration for ISIS.
Here is what Friedman regards as evidence for his claim:
Well, at least Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in the modern world. No, wait, what is the name that Erdogan insists be put on the newest bridge he’s building across the Bosporus? Answer: the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge. Selim I was the Sunni Turkish sultan who, in 1514, beat back the Persian Shiite empire of his day, called the Safavids. Turkey’s Alevi minority, a Shiite offshoot sect whose ancestors faced Selim’s wrath, have protested the name of the bridge.
They know it didn’t come out of a hat. According to Britannica, Selim I was the Ottoman sultan (1512-20) who extended the empire to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, “and raised the Ottomans to leadership of the Muslim world.” He then turned eastward and took on the Safavid Shiite dynasty in Iran, which posed a “political and ideological threat” to the hegemony of Ottoman Sunni Islam. Selim was the first Turkish leader to claim to be both sultan of the Ottoman Empire and caliph of all Muslims.
Here in the States, we just finished celebrating Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus was surely a competitor with Selim I for imperial ambition and militaristic indifference to the Rights of Man. Now recall that Columbus made it to North American shores in 1492–a “crazy long time ago,” as one of my students put it to me. Does that mean that we aren’t part of the modern world, and that we still want to enslave indigenous peoples? After all, we haven’t just dedicated a mere bridge to Columbus, but a whole day to him. If not–and I assume not–why think that the Turks’ naming a bridge after an Ottoman sultan proves that they want to restore the caliphate?
Another cringe-making paragraph:
Vice President Joe Biden did not misspeak when he accused Turkey of facilitating the entry of ISIS fighters into Syria. Just as there is a little bit of West Bank “Jewish settler” in almost every Israeli, there is a little bit of the caliphate dream in almost every Sunni. Some Turkish analysts suspect Erdogan does not dream of building pluralistic democracy in Iraq and Syria, but rather a modern Sunni caliphate — not led by ISIS but by himself. Until then, he clearly prefers ISIS on his border than an independent Kurdistan.
I think I’d want better evidence of Turkey’s facilitating the entry of ISIS fighters into Syria than this. Biden, who has one major instance of intellectual dishonesty in his past, is also known for putting his foot in his mouth on occasion (or two, or…ten). On this particular occasion, he happens explicitly to have withdrawn the accusation against Turkey, so it’s mystifying how Friedman manages to exhume the comment from the dead and use it as Exhibit A of his thesis. One explanation for Biden’s withdrawal of the claim is that he really believes what he said, and was entirely justified in saying it, but simply fears the wrath of the Turkish president. Another explanation is that he spoke too hastily, lacked proper evidence, and realized that he’d embarrassed himself. I leave it to readers to decide between these two hypotheses. I only point out that Friedman neither provides the evidence to decide between them, nor bothers to inform his readers of the need to make a decision. Responsible journalism? No; in fact, it’s positively Oriental in its shadiness.
As for the next sentence in the passage, it’s a double-insult to those it accuses and a complete non-sequitur to boot. What on earth does Biden’s (withdrawn) accusation have to do with Friedman’s claims about non-Turkish Sunnis? And what conceivable evidence could support such a claim, whether about Sunnis, or about Israelis? How many Sunnis are there in the world, and what sample of them has Friedman met? How many of their languages does he speak? For that matter, how many Israelis has he met to justify the claim that they’re all settlers at heart? I’ve been covering inductive generalization with my critical thinking classes here at Felician, but these generalizations are too wild and preposterous even for use in a classroom exercise on fallacious reasoning. They’re the sort of thing I’d expect from an unhinged combox crusader at Jihad Watch, not from a veteran columnist at The New York Times. Under normal circumstances, we’d call generalizations of this kind “bigotry.” Under the present circumstances, one simply furrows one’s brow and wonders what the hell is going through Friedman’s mind.
What, finally, does the column have to do with Freud?
In sum, there are so many conflicting dreams and nightmares playing out among our Middle East allies in the war on ISIS that Freud would not have been able to keep them straight.
That’s it. Bring up “dreams” in one stray sentence in the course of a (very) half-assed column, and suddenly, you’re doing the psychodynamics of “the Middle East.” By this definition, I guess Osama bin Laden was a Freudian.
If you want to grasp the full meaning of the concept of “double standard,” turn from Friedman’s article to a report (first link just below) by the group AMCHA, purporting to document instances of anti-Semitism on American university campuses. The claim they make is that anyone sympathetic to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel is ipso facto an anti-Semite, ought to be branded as one by name, and ought to be treated accordingly. In fact, such academics, according to AMCHA, are to be blacklisted in full-dress McCarthyite fashion. Here is AMCHA’s idea of an operational definition of “anti-Semitism.” The AMCHA blacklist has recently been protested by a group of 40 professors of Jewish Studies, but it’s also gotten the support of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and others. It’s an unbelievable phenomenon, but really just the predictable result of about a decade-and-a-half of very aggressive lobbying by a certain right-wing brand of pro-Israel activist who would rather engage in libels and defamation than argument.
The lesson here seems to be that you can make unrestrained generalizations about the covert imperial ambitions of Arabs and Muslims based on absolutely nothing–and that you can engage in character-assassination of critics of Israel based on about as much. Further, you can do it in the serene and untroubled conviction that there’s nothing wrong with either thing. You just start here: Arabs and Muslims are irredentist fanatics, and accusations of anti-Semitism can be made of them (or those who support their causes) off the cuff; when it comes to character-assassination, precision is a very low priority. It’s easier to make an accusation than to defend oneself against one, after all. Make the accusation, and you’re half-way home: in a climate of opinion in which the presumption of innocence no longer applies, the damage has already been done.
What we’re witnessing, I think, is the derangement that arises from prolonged immersion in the rhetoric and psychodynamics of warfare. We’ve been at war for so long, and the activity has corrupted our minds so completely, that discourse on topics related to the Middle East now seems to have devolved into something genuinely psychopathological–into schizoid fantasy and hysteria. In other words, welcome to the place where civilization and its discontents merge into the psychopathology of everyday life. It’s going to take more than a few sessions on the couch to work this one out.
Postscript, November 13, 2014: Here’s more grist for the mill, so to speak: The New York Times reports this morning that “[m]embers of a Turkish nationalist youth group assaulted three visiting American sailors in Istanbul yesterday, hurling balloons filled with red paint at them, putting white sacks over their heads and calling them murderers.” Twelve of them were later arrested. Here is the Pentagon’s characteristically tone-deaf response to the event: “A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, was more blunt [than the American Embassy], saying that the assailants ‘appeared to be thugs on the street’ and were ‘a great discredit upon the Turks and the Turkish reputation for hospitality’.”
Honestly, where do they get these “spokesmen” from? That the attack was thuggish and wrong I don’t dispute. But is a single attack by a dozen thugs a “great discredit” upon the reputation of the people of a whole country? I wonder whether Col. Warren has any idea how many visiting foreigners are attacked and robbed when they visit the United States–to say nothing of how they’re treated by border control guards at our ports of entry and exit. Do individual crimes against foreign visitors reflect on my reputation, yours, Col. Warren’s, or that of the American people? How would they? The claim is patently ridiculous, and yet we pay “spokesmen” like Warren handsome sums to make claims like that. Is it any wonder that the stereotype of the “ugly American” persists?
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.”