On -isms: Why It's Important to Shit on Columbus

By | Thursday, October 09, 2014 6 comments
Monday, October 13, is Columbus Day, the day Americans honor the man who "discovered" our country. In recent years, you may have heard some groups make some noise about how we shouldn't pay tribute to the man, or how some cities have re-named the day "Indigenous People’s Day." Matthew Inman put together this "comic" (it's not really a comic, so much as illustrated prose) providing several reasons why Christopher Columbus isn't worthy of a holiday; it will probably be more extensively linked to in the next few days.

But the retort often comes back: why should I change what I grew up with? This is basically the same arguements sports fans have been making about professional teams with racist names and mascots.

Like, I expect, many of you, I was taught in school that "in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue..." And this was in a suburb of Cleveland, where opening day of baseball season was almost more of a holiday than Columbus Day, so we could celebrate the Cleveland Indians. And that was just how things were. We grew up with it all around us, so it felt quite normal and everyone accepted Columbus as a sort of godfather to the United States and Chief Wahoo as Cleveland's pride. There were a few of us, I recall, who were well-read enough to know about Leif Ericson, but he was mostly brushed off with a "yeah, he technically 'discovered' America before Columbus, but he never did anything about it." Similarly, we knew Columbus never actually set foot in North America, but Central America was close enough to count.

But even with those caveats, the basic stories we were told as children held true. 1492, Columbus, New World, colonization, Thanksgiving, George Washington... That was American history class for us. And that's why it's problematic for so many people today to accept these "new" truths about history.

See, we learn a whole bunch of stuff as kids. And sometimes those things turn out to be untrue. There was a time when a molecule was thought to be the smallest component part of matter. People were taught this. And then we discovered atoms. And then we discovered protons and electrons. And then we discovered quarks. And each time one of these discoveries was made, people had to go around "re-learning" what they thought they knew about microscopic particles. And that was okay because each time, these were entirely new discoveries.

"Well, we thought molecules were the smallest things ever, but we got this new microscope and now we can see the stuff that makes up molecules!"

"We thought atoms were the smallest things ever, but we can now see there's stuff that makes up atoms!"

"We thought protons and electrons were the smallest things ever..."

These are genuinely new discoveries. Things that no one had any knowledge of before. Science often works like that.

But history, particularly this type of history we're talking about with Columbus, comes from a different place. History, it's said, is written by the victors. And they write history in a way to put the best light possible on themselves. Sometimes just by putting a positive spin on events, sometimes by omitting negative elements, sometimes with outright lies. And that is why accepting revisions in history (and social sciences more generally) is more difficult.

See, it's not really that people think Columbus was a great and noble hero, and they have this huge amount of respect that they flat-out reject any notion that he doesn't deserve a holiday. No, the issue is that the people who taught them that -- their parents, and teachers, and guardians -- are now being portrayed as liars. They're protesting the idea that the authority figures they looked up to and respected as children told them something fundamentally untrue. The people who taught you how to read and write, the people who provided praise when you did something well, the people who fed you and bathed you and put a roof over your head... you're now being told that they were wrong. And not just wrong, but willfully wrong. That they knew the truth, and deliberately lied to you for the sake of whatever story they were trying to tell. That's a hard pill to swallow.

And that's why it's important to go out of the way to show just how awful a person Christopher Columbus was. If you just say that he brought diseases to the New World, someone might be able to dismiss that as an unintended consquence. If you say he brought back slaves, they might say they were brought back to show what natives looked like and that Columbus didn't actually intend for them to be slaves. But as you pile more and more crap on Columbus -- he brought back slaves repeatedly, he chopped off the hands of natives who didn't pay him, he wrote in his journal about raping the women, etc. -- it gets that much harder to dismiss or ignore.

That biographic comic I have picture on the left? It's not done all that well in the first place, but more importantly, it largely reiterates the lies I was told as a child. The Oatmeal piece that I linked to above; frankly, it's not a great example of a biographic comic by any means, but Inman at least tries to set the record straight.

Listen, like I'm sure a lot of you, I had a crush on my first grade teacher too. (Ms. Cougar -- I swear, her name was Ms. Cougar!) She was sweet and attractive and seemed to know everything (she was a teacher, after all) and I thought the world of her. But there was stuff she (and ALL of my subsequent teachers) told us that were lies. They were human, and subject to the same influences you and I are. In some cases, they were just reiterating what they were taught (and never questioned) and in some cases, they had an agenda of some sort. (My biology teacher in high school managed to include creationism in her lessons on evolution.) Don't continue to "honor" those individuals by insulting whole groups of people who had their or their ancestors lives severely and negatively impacted.
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Jeff Dreger said...

Good post. I just don't remember the creationism part aside from a brief disclaimer before the evolution section acknowledging that some people/religions took issue with it.

Matt K said...

It feels like some comments on how and why we began celebrating Columbus Day in the first place would help, here… though after a very quick look (i.e. Wikipedia) I don't find much of an explanation.

Honestly, why did the United States ever make a major observance of Columbus Day? He sailed, for Spain, to the Caribbean, thinking the entire time that it was east Asia. How does a former English colony on the mainland decide that "this guy is one of our heroes??" I'm not seeing much of a persuasive answer. I suppose that Spain was an ally, eventually, in the Revolutionary War… but I'm not sure many people even know that, and it isn't like America ever had closer affinities with Spain than with Britain (to which Spain was long a major opponent, including in the colonial Americas).

All I can figure is that Columbus became appointed the forebear, the ur-pioneer, for white colonization of the Americas. And that a kind of pan-caucasian view of white "us" and non-white "them" made Columbus--for an America still identified as a white people's country, by the cultural narrative prevailing at the time--one of "us."

Which is not only awful but, at this point at least, also just kind of stupid.

@Jeff -- I took biology a year later than everyone else in our class, so maybe she changed the discussion up a bit? (For some reason, she made that leaf project LESS cumbersome if you didn't take biology your sophomore year. I only had to collect/identify a little more than half the leaves you did. I was really surprised more students didn't try gaming the system that way.)

@Matt -- Inman has a couple comments about how Columbus Day started in his piece and, presumably, the two books he cites as reference have more info. The short version is that the Knights of Columbus wanted a male, Catholic role model and pressured FDR into creating the holiday.

Anonymous said...

@Sean -- So Jesus, Peter and Paul were not good enough for them? :(

Catholicism didn't start until a few generations after those three died.

shadzane said...

Also interesting to note: Columbus was ignored in English-speaking America for several hundred years, until after the American revolution. Then the newly-independent Americans wanted some non-British heroes to look up to...