Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day and Judging the Past

Columbus Day has come and gone in the U.S., and there's just no way around it: it's a controversial holiday.

I don't view Columbus Day as really about Columbus himself. It's about the modern contact between the Old World and New World and marking that event in history.

There's always a tendency to oversimplify what it means. Not too long ago, Columbus Day, if recognized at all, was only a celebration. More recently, the coin has flipped and people only discuss all of the horrific things that occurred.

And that list of horrific things goes on for a long time:

The destruction of hundreds of cultures
Languages disappearing forever
Million upon millions of innocent people dead
dead through war, disease, genocide, neglect
The spread of slavery across the globe....

But at the same time, many amazing things have come about as well because of this contact. Here's just a partial list (and apologies to the other Americas for the undeniably U.S.-centric list):


Harper Lee
Truman Capote
John Steinbeck
Walt Whitman
Toni Morrison
Michael Chabon
Jhumpa Lahiri
Zora Neale Hurston
David Henry Hwang
Louisa May Alcott
Robert Frost
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maya Angelou

Performing Arts / Film

Rodgers and Hammerstein
Cole Porter
Arthur Miller
Tony Kushner
George Gershwin
August Wilson
Orson Welles
Gene Kelly
Fred Astaire
Ginger Rodgers
Jim Henson
The Godfather
Marlon Brando
Kathryn Hepburn

Music (this might be the biggest of all: imagine music today without the New World....)

Louis Armstrong
Ella Fitzgerald
Billie Holiday
Dizzy Gillespie
Charlie Parker
Duke Ellington
Benny Goodman
Muddy Waters
Robert Johnson
Bessie Smith
Howlin' Wolf
The Beatles (well aware, they are Brits, but they were performing Elvis and Chuck Berry; same concept goes for pretty much every single modern musical act. I bet if we all tossed away every CD we had that had some sort of New World post-Columbus influence, we'd end up with about 6 items, 4 of which you picked up on world travels (ok, fine, I know some people for whom this would not be true, but I think my points is clear. Even if your collection is stacked with stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, almost all of them are doing New World music reflected back through their own culture and artistry)
Chuck Berry
Simon and Garfunkel
Kathleen Battle
the Met
bossa nova
Antonio Carlos Jobim
ki ho'alu (Hawaiian slack key guitar)
songs of Queen Liliuokalani
Western swing


Jesse Owens
Jackie Joyner Kersey
Carl Lewis
Jackie Robinson
Duke Kahanamoku (at least not his exact life)
Michael Jordan
Ichiro Suzuki
Wilt Chamberlain
Yao Ming
Tiger Woods
Mary Lou Retton
Michelle Kwan
Kristy Yamaguchi

Just major world events / innovation

the telephone
the Moon Landing
the Marshall Plan
the Declaration of Independence
the internet
Martin Luther King Jr.
the lightbulb
Henry Ford's plant
Susan B. Anthony
the cotton gin
the "green revolution" that saved millions from famine in this century

And that's all just scratching the surface.

One can say that some of these things would have been created by others if people in the New World, operating in the cultures created by the contact initiated by Columbus, had not done so. Sometimes that's easy to see, such as with the incandescent lightbulb. Clearly opera would be okay without the U.S. Other things are extremely unlikely. It is exactly the mixing of European and African cultures in the U.S., put through the minds of individual geniuses, that created jazz. Anyway, if we go down this road of "well, someone would have done it," then we are just dealing in hypotheticals within hypotheticals. The facts are that all these people in the Americas did do it.

Of course, if we hadn't had these things created, because the settlement from Europe, Africa, and Asia into the Americas never occurred in the pattern that it actually did, we'd all be celebrating other cultural achievements. Playing the game of "well, it was worth it" is hopeless. Who knows what would have existed. The fact that we got MLK and can celebrate that doesn't mean that segregation was good. Instead, people just do the best they can with what they've got.

You can rarely judge an individual's action by what happened due to it 100 years later. Columbus did set in motion the world of Cortez, but, if we simply blame Columbus, then we are letting Cortez off the moral hook for the conquest of Mexico, and surely he's the one to blame there. Cortez could have said 'no'. Columbus should be morally judged on his own actions (and I'm aware that he had a very mixed/dubious character), not for what others did in his footsteps.

Now, that last paragraph sounds good to me (which is nice since I wrote it), but it's assuredly a flawed view. The actions of a single person can be basically harmless when only one person does it, but when a million people do the same thing, it can be devastating. The clearest case is in natural habitats. One besotted nature tourist walking a beach where sea turtles are born does harm to no one. But cover the beach with those tourists and the habitat is destroyed. One carbon-emitting car: no problem. 100 million carbon-spewing cars: big problem. The same thing happens with cultural contact. It does little harm for an English speaker to meet and become friends with a group of Choctaw speaking people. But swamp the nation with English-speakers and the Choctaw language is fighting for its life.

Those wiser than me must take it from here. I think all you can do with Columbus Day is say that it changed the world. That makes it worth marking. And then teach children what happened as a consequence. The good things, the terrible things. And then maybe they will take whatever actions they can as they grow up to keep as much of the good and mitigate the bad as can be done today. If I were to stay in Hawaii permanently, for instance (which is not likely since there are no jobs here without killing someone in my department), I would have failed if I don't take actions to keep Hawaiian culture and language alive.


Courtney said...

I admire/love how the glass is always half full in your view! i concure with u big brother.

pjd said...

I grew up on the east coast, and pretty much everywhere Columbus was a celebrated figure. But the rumblings were starting--kids would say, "But he wasn't the first person to discover America! Leif Ericson was!" (Yes, I understand the irony there.)

Now, living in the San Francisco area, it's interesting to see that Columbus is pretty much reviled as the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. In Berkeley, Columbus Day has been renamed Indigenous Peoples Day and is celebrated with diversity events. My kids are growing up seeing both sides, and learning a valuable set of lessons in the process.

The undercurrent of exploration has always been conquest. People do not explore unless they also intend to conquer. Is that inherently bad or evil? The answer to that question is decided by who wins.

For example, the Europeans won, which means that Columbus became a heroic figure for hundreds of years. Another example: The Vikings were pushed out of England, so they are reflected in English language history books as barbaric, heathen marauders. History is written by the victors.

Perhaps in the future, exploration will be more enlightened and will not be followed by conquest. Perhaps humanity will be more interested in integration, mutual learning, mutual benefit. But I doubt it. It would be interesting to see a survey of popular science fiction and to see how many stories have "colonies" on other planets... particularly where there is an indigenous species.

pacatrue said...

Yeah, it's good to see both sides. I hope they come up with a better conclusion than I'm able to.

I guess my objection to both "Columbus is a hero" and "Columbus is a travesty" is that each group tends to ignore info. On the Columbus is a hero side, you ignore millions of people who died. On the Columbus is a travesty side, you only blame Columbus for the bad stuff and give him no credit for the good stuff.

I guess that's why I say, if you want to assign blame or reward to Columbus the man, then judge what he actually did. But if you want to judge him for what happened later, then give him the good stuff AND the bad stuff.

I think a good argument could be made for changing Columbus Day to a Contact day or some such. He certainly was not the first person to arrive in the Americas, obviously, but Columbus initiated the continuous contact that produced the world we live in today.