I’ve never been a believer in ethnic pride, so Columbus Day has never been a particularly important date for me. Nowadays, of course, Columbus has fallen into justified disrepute, his cruelties to the unfortunate inhabitants of the lands he “discovered” having become more widely known. (For an excellent account of how this mediocre sea captain, slave monger and mass murderer was transformed into an icon of Americana, see this.) Still, myths die hard, and thousands of people, certainly not all of them Italian-American, will be marching in his honor today, in New York City under light rain and elsewhere across the country.
Should we instead be pulling down statues of Columbus? A doggedly principled attachment to historic truth and basic decency suggests that we should, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. It would hand the right, starting with you-know-who, another weapon in their war against libruls and leftists who hate America and our precious historic heritage. So, I’m willing to live with the Columbus myth.
But, I have advocated pulling down statues of Confederate heroes; am I being inconsistent? No, because this is one of those cases where a line has to be drawn somewhere. Robert E. Lee and his co-conspirators are known today mainly for having fought a revolt against the United States for the purpose of preserving slavery. Celebrating them is inextricably linked to the racist history of the Confederacy; it’s a fairly frontal insult to African Americans alive today. Columbus is known and appreciated today mainly for having discovered America. Whether or not he deserves that recognition, that is why his is a household name. I don’t think that celebrating Columbus is directly insulting to native Americans the way celebrating Lee is to American blacks.
Absolutists and purists won’t be happy with this distinction, but it works for me. And purist absolutism tends not to be smart politics.