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So Ultra-Uber Seattle

So Ultra-Uber Seattle October 8, 2014

We just voted to change “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”.

A few years back. We changed the name of King County to, wait for it, King County. Only now it was named for Martin Luther King instead of some obscure 19th century former slaveholder. We love our symbolic gestures here in Seattle.

Me: I don’t have a huge amount invested in Columbus Day. Nor does anybody else much any more. The civic cult of Columbus was founded in the 19th century in order to give Italian Catholic immigrants who were being treated like crap by “real” Americans a place at the civic table. (Protestant America said, “Look! We realize we’ve treated you papist foreigners like an invading bacteria in the pure WASP culture of America, but we are now welcoming you into our public life. See! Here’s a famous Italian we are now suddenly pretending was important to us after generations of talking about the Pilgrims as though American history starts with them.”  For our part as Catholics, it’s what also led to the creation of the Knights of Columbus: “See, Protestant America!  Catholics are not subversives here to undermine your civilization and kill Abraham Lincoln!  We are good civic-minded  people!”)  Such a cultural rapprochment is understandable since it was, after all, the era where this was standard fare for the sort of people who would today be watching FOX and screaming about diseased subversive immigrants infiltrating our Sacred Shores.

It would take a generation or so–and a Sacco and Vanzetti trial–before Italians would be fully integrated into American life and making flag-waving Frank Capra movies that no American would think twice about cheering for.  So a Columbus Day to say, “Hey!  We recognize that Italians have a real place in American life” was not such a bad idea at the time.  It’s how Americans have often massaged outgroups like us Micks (St. Patrick’s Day!) or crazy labor unionists (Labor Day!) or African Americans (Martin Luther King Day!) into our civic life.

Well, few outgroups have gotten a bigger shaft in American History than the native population who suffered genocide and ethnic cleansing from us and still live disproportionately harder lives than the rest of us.

Here, for instance, is 19th Century Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton addressing his colleagues on the floor of the Senate and explaining how the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” showed that the civilizing mission of his own—higher—race justified the ethnic cleansing and extermination of lower races:

It would seem that the white race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! for it is the only race that has obeyed it—the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New world, to subdue and replenish…. Three and a half centuries ago, this race, in obedience to the great command, arrived in the New world, and found new lands to subdue and replenish…. The van of the Caucasian race now top the Rocky Mountains, and spread down to the shores of the Pacific. In a few years a great population will grow up there, luminous with the accumulated lights of European and American civilization…. The Red race has disappeared from the Atlantic coast: the tribes that resisted civilization met extinction. This is a cause of lamentation with many. For my part, I cannot murmur at what seems to be the effect of divine law. I cannot repine that this Capitol has replaced the wigwam—this Christian people, replaced the savages—white matrons, the red squaws and such men as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, have taken the place of Powhattan, Opechonecanough, and other red men, howsoever respectable they may have been as savages. Civilization, or extinction, has been the fate of all people who have found themselves in the track of the advancing Whites, and civilization, always the preference of the Whites, has been pressed as an object, while extinction has followed as a consequence of its resistance.

A little later in history, this doctrine would be called “Lebensraum”.

Of course, this will be the Next Big Panic for the Panic Manufacturers at FOX and the Talk Radio Yap Dogs (FOX is practically the only American network to report the story, because they are always on the lookout for culture war chum to gin up their angry and terrified viewers). So we will doubtless hear breathless stuff about the War on Columbus Day from the usual screamers–people who never notice Columbus Day unless its a useful culture war shibboleth.  Indeed, I’m already seeing the completely predictable hysterics about “Obummer” being behind this devastating assault on the absolutely crucial holiday, etc.  It’s like watching people suddenly become incandescently passionate about Arbor Day.  And all because the Panic Manufacturers blow a dog whistle and these free and independent thinkers immediately respond.

Meanwhile, normal people will go on having “Columbus Day Sales” (because it’s easier to say than “Indigenous Peoples’ Day Sales”) and will go on doing what they have always done for Columbus Day: Nothing special (or getting a day off in fewer and fewer places).

Me:  I think Columbus Day is an especially dumb right wing culture war hill to die on and IPD seems reasonable to me if you are into that sort of thing.  IPD may or may not catch on.  My guess is it won’t since there’s not a lot of money or power in  Native Americans and that’s generally what drive politics these days.  Moreover, people whose historical horizon only extends to the previous iteration of their iPhone don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the obliteration of Native populations since, hey, the reservation casino up in Marysville seems to be doing okay. So I expect Seattle and a few other ultra-violet communities like Leslie Knopes’ Pawnee, Indiana will do a little thing like this and that will be that. A pity. Since by all rights there *should* be a serious national reckoning on this fact of American history. Is it quixotic and well-meaning? Sure. Seattleites are all about quixotic and well-meaning. Is it snooty and insufferable and morally superior in an ostentatious and cost-free way? Sure. Seattleites are all about that too. (It will be a long time before we have a Memorial to the Unborn Day in Seattle, cuz that would cost serious political capital in our Open-Minded Town). But on the whole, I think Chief Sealth, who died a Catholic, would not be displeased with Seattle for this minor act of reparation.

Now if Seattle’s officials would move on from symbolic gestures to channelling their creative energies toward fixing roads and bridges, repairing the tunnel boring machine, and so forth, that would be perfect.


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