Goodbye, Columbus: If You're Worried That America Has Forgotten Its Western-Civ Roots, Go Read a Book

Conservatives say that by derogating Columbus Day we annul 1,500 years of cultural history. So how many of them have read Erasmus?
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The Indigenous Day of Remembrance, observed in New York City's Columbus Circle on October 12, 2014, by activists celebrating 500 years of resistance to colonialism. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

The Indigenous Day of Remembrance, observed in New York City's Columbus Circle on October 12, 2014, by activists celebrating 500 years of resistance to colonialism. (Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Yesterday was Columbus Day—a sacrosanct occasion for cultural conservatives and the bane of anyone who wanted to take out a library book. My favorite Columbus Day tradition, besides Twitter quips and watching Peter Falk ask one more question, is touring the annual outrage-harvest in search of its most misshapen fruits. This year's lumpiest gourd comes from Ira Straus at the National Review. Straus is very upset that Seattle and Minneapolis and (woe to the Black Hills) the entire state of South Dakota have done away with this venerable holiday, which the federal government did not celebrate until 1937.

We should think carefully about Straus' argument because somebody has to and it certainly won't be him.

What these citizens object to is the mandated celebration of what quickly became a murderous invasion, its motives mercenary and merciless.

“Take Back Columbus Day,” the title enjoins us, and the lede is yet more dire: “The effort to deconstruct America’s identity continues apace.” Steeling ourselves, we read on, only to discover the full and awesome significance of a holiday that hatched under the second Roosevelt. Straus is shocked—shocked!—that “no one [stands] up for what Columbus Day is actually about. No one.” And elsewhere, referring to municipal and state governments that have supplanted Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples' Day: “Shame on Seattle. And on Minneapolis. And on South Dakota. Shame on their politicians and elites, who did the deed.” 'Twas a dark deed, changing the name of our 19th most important national holiday—right after Confederate Memorial Day and Talk Like a Pirate Day—and Straus is pleased to play Banquo's ghost at this particular party. His rhetoric is so doomstruck you almost wonder whether Seattle and Minneapolis and the citizens of Sioux City, South Dakota, had committed (say) genocide on a continental scale.

As for what Columbus Day “is actually about”: “It is about reminding ourselves of the fundaments of who we are and where we come from.” This is a fun sentence because it contains the noun “fundament,” which Straus (as a Western-Civ purist) must surely know means “buttocks.” In Straus' account, to shun Columbus is to shun the richness of our European heritage. Indeed, Columbus Day is our portal to the strangest misinterpretation of European history that the National Review has run since last Thursday:

Our history, traced backwards, starts with the career of the United States proper since 1783. Next, the history of Britain together with British colonial America, starting in 1607: a successful colonial expansion of the existing European society, a British supplanting of the Spanish and Catholic empires as the leading force outside Europe, a Glorious Revolution empowering Parliament, a Bill of Rights, an Anglo-Scottish Union, an Anglo-American separation. Before that, the long history of Britain and Europe: Elizabethan England; failed colonization attempts; Renaissance and Reformation; emergence of modern science; explorations of the Atlantic and the world. Columbus is like the sliver at the middle of our historical hourglass: The entire history of Europe funnels through it, then opens up wide again on the American side of the ocean. Still earlier, the Magna Carta. The emergence of Parliament. The Middle Ages. The congealing of England and other European societies after the disintegration of Rome.

I'll admit that it's always frustrating when one's English “congeals”—witness the paragraph above. Straus speaks of England's “Glorious Revolution” as though it weren't one of the most inhumane episodes in English history, and we should pause to marvel at the free-association here. “Still earlier, the Magna Carta.” Yes, the Magna Carta was signed (and then trampled upon) two centuries before Columbus. Still earlier, the Norman Conquest, and still earlier, the rape of the Sabine women. Why Straus has omitted the death of Pompey, we may never know.

That history should funnel through something does not make that alembic worthy of honor, or of mindless enthusiasm. The history of Christianity was “funneled” through the crusades and the European inquisitions, yet American Christians do not sacrifice a Monday to either of these historical moments. Straus' principal error, if we can choose just one, is in thinking that the derogation of Columbus Day is akin to book-burning or historical revisionism. Those who oppose the celebration of Columbus Day do not deny that Columbus, an Italian, sailed to the Caribbean using Portuguese money and thinking he had arrived in Visakhapatnam. What these citizens object to is the mandated celebration of what quickly became a murderous invasion, its motives mercenary and merciless. Straus blames even “the neoconservatives” for their woeful “underemphasis on the common history and achievements of Western civilization.” It is deeply unclear what the writer means here—should Bill Kristol be writing columns about Rembrandt or Cortez? Should we all get advanced degrees in the agrarian economics of the Renaissance? Straus is too coy to say.

There's a really simple solution to his paranoia about our fragile European history, though. It's to be found in the libraries that are all closed on the second Monday each October. If Straus wishes, I am more than happy to recommend books on the “Glorious” Revolution—it would be lovely to see his moral imagination cohere rather than congeal. In short: If you fear the decline of Caucasian historical memory so much, why not spend Columbus Day with a handful of improving books? If we really require parades to remind us that the Magna Carta was a Thing That Happened, America is even more screwed than Straus thinks.

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