Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day, Like it or Not

Normally on Monday's I'd link to the editorial in Small Town Newspaper, but today's piece isn't online for some reason. At first I was concerned until I picked up the actual paper and saw that I that my little story had been published right where I thought it should be. Yay.

I had an agreement with the old editor that allowed me to copy my editorials onto my blog, but we've got a new guy now, and he and I haven't had that conversation. Let's just assume he could care less, and I can copy it here today.

So, like it or not, it's Columbus Day, and here's what I have to say about that:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain;
He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.

Columbus Day used to be appreciated with just such a childlike acceptance with kids reciting rhymes and building the Pinta, the NiƱa and the Santa Maria out of old cardboard boxes. Columbus was simply the hero who discovered America. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t the first European to set foot on soil west of the Atlantic or that he never actually found the continents—the mere act of sparking the expansion of the western world made him worthy of honor.

Now, there are state capitals and colleges and streets and rivers and a country named for him. Even the original Pledge of Allegiance was written to commemorate his first voyage. And it isn’t just the United States that honors Columbus. European countries have held him in high regard as well, and there are statues of him in city squares and days set aside to give him his due.

But not everyone thinks Christopher Columbus was such an honorable man deserving of being hailed as a hero, and more than 500 years after his first voyage across the Atlantic, people fiercely debate his best and worst aspects.

He was an adventurer, an experienced sailor, a man of vision who believed he was guided by God. He waited out the skeptics who were sure he had underestimated the circumference of the planet (he had), and he was persistent in pleading for financial support year after year. Columbus left behind volumes documenting his voyages and his thoughts, and he once wrote, “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.” Among many things, he certainly prevailed in pursuit of his goal.

On the other hand, he was a slave trader, capturing even the friendliest of indigenous people he found in the Caribbean for return to Spain. He set them to the task of mining for gold, and he took advantage of their passive nature, writing, “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.” He and his men introduced diseases like smallpox and malaria to these strangers and eventually all but wiped out their villages as a result. This captain of four historic voyages that would change the world allowed raping and pillaging and brutal disregard for human life in the name of conquest and glory.

So, why do we devote a day, even marginally, to his honor? Why did we choose to make an icon out of someone with so many flaws? I think the answer lies in recognizing there is no such thing as a human being without flaws, even major defects in character that may out weigh his qualities. I can’t think of a historical or notable figure we honor with special days that didn’t also demonstrate some of humanity’s darkest aspects. Our presidents, civil rights leaders, saints and even veterans had just as many flaws as they had honorable traits.

If we insist on only acknowledging people who are pure and guiltless, and if we keep trying to make super heroes out of mere human beings, then we’ll never recognize a single person for his or her accomplishments. We’ll never be able to applaud an achievement large or small without picking the bones of the achiever.

Today, indigenous people argue against acknowledging Columbus Day, and I can understand their point if the day were meant to praise the horrors of history, of conquering and obliterating weaker civilizations. But if you see the day as a way to recognize one man’s achievements in exploration and to give a nod to that bravest part of us all that sends us out into the unknown regardless of risk, then granting a day to remember Christopher Columbus is appropriate.

And taking a few moments to see that day with some childlike enthusiasm might not be such a bad idea either.

Day after day they looked for land;
They dreamed of trees and rocks and sand.
On October 12 their dreams came true.
You never saw a happier crew.


Mike Licht said...

Today is "Native American Day" in South Dakota.

Discovered: New painting of Columbus.


kyle@sift said...

Today is Thanksgiving in Canada.

Madame DeFarge said...

Interesting. I always wonder about revisionism and deciding that our heroes are not longer and that our villains are now heroes. I think you're right about the balance between flaws and goodness. And he was a man of his time. We judge him through a lense of modernity - not entirely fair.

Rich said...

Here's to "The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria".