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.


  1. Frank Burd October 9, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    It’s complicated, I agree. And you are right about randomly pulling down any monuments. Each new administration would pull down the monuments of the previous one. But to celebrate slavery is a crime. In fact, we learned in school that “the war between the states” was not about slavery, but about states’ rights. Remember? And I was always fascinated with the claim the Columbus discovered something that was already there. I used to think how glad I was not to have lived in those times. Now, I’m not sure I like living in these times. Was it always this way?

  2. Jeffrey Herrmann October 10, 2017 at 3:45 am

    I think your suggestion that the important question is “What do we celebrate this person for?” is a good idea. If what the person is celebrated for is worthy of celebration, the statue should stand.
    We celebrate Jeffferson for his contribution to the founding of our nation and its Constitution. If I wished to engage in conspicuous virtue signaling, I could find fault in some other things Jefferson did during his life and demand all statues of Jefferson be torn down, as the mere sight of them traumatises me. Wouldn’t that make me feel good!
    Only a person utterly without fault should have their bronze likeness on a pedestal?

  3. Donald Campbell October 11, 2017 at 9:18 am

    Pragmatism is another word to describe it. But isn’t it pragmatism (in voting for Clinton) that go us Trump. Doesn’t the 2-party system reduce us to being pragmatic and isn’t this a slippery slope that we keep descending?

    Yes, I share your fears of the radical right, but doesn’t this pragmatism with-in our inadequate system just ‘kick the can down the slope?’

    I am not advocating ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water,’ but stating that our system is not and probably cannot meet the political needs of the 21st century is essential in my view.

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