So the other day, the blogosphere and FB were full of the annual ritual denunciation of Horrible Christopher Columbus. Yeah, he was an awful man in a lot of ways. Duly noted.
Still and all, I think our annual 15 Minute Hate on Columbus is mostly posturing by a people compensating for all the crap we inflict on the weak. Look! I’m Socially Aware! I Hate Columbus. Give me my wine and cheese.
Here’s the deal: The real reason for Columbus Day is that 19th Century America took a step *forward* from its mindless nativism toward the huge tide of immigrants from southeast Europe, especially Italians. (Look up Sacco and Vanzetti and the panic surrounding them, or pay attention to the rise of the KKK–whose high-water mark was the mid-20s, not 1870s–if you want to get a sense of the “foreign terrorists are among us and will kill us all!!!! mentality that was all the buzz among mouthbreathers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The fear and hatred directed at Italians just a little over a century ago was exactly like the bigotry directed at Latino and, soon, Syrian refugees today.
And yet, despite this temptation to give in to this ugly bigotry, American society, in a remarkably generous and Christian spirit, rejected this and, instead, tried to figure out a way to welcome the huge tide of immigrants.
Solution: find somebody in our history who could represent them. Not a lot of Italians in 1776, nor battling Lee at Gettysburg, so they looked back further, found Columbus, and suddenly grafted him on to our National Story. Italians went from being despised minorities to being welcomed as Americans. That’s why the day exists and I don’t begrudge it.Not to say that we still have barely begun to grapple with our legacy of genocide and ethnic cleansing inflicted against Native peoples. We’re still embroiled in trying to come to terms with our legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and have mostly back-burnered things like the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee (to cite but two incidents out of a history so shameful that we cannot bring ourselves to look at it).
But Columbus-hating is cheap and easy. Properly understood, the day represents a step forward in the American genius for taking diverse peoples and making them into a nation. It’s not about Columbus. It’s about Italians. It’s about Fiorello LaGuardia, Joe DiMaggio, Patti LuPone, Sylvester Stallone. It’s about millions of Americans today to whom it would never occur to regard Italian-Americans as anything other than wonderful members of the American legacy. It is one of the many evidences that America is, as Chesterton noted, a nation with the soul of a church, founded on a creed rather than on ethnicity.
We still have far to go including others in the circle of Common Good that the American experiment aims to promote, as the figure of Columbus and the ghastly treatment of Native Americans he recalls makes clear–and as the struggle against abortion makes clear as well. But let us not imagine we can climb higher by kicking down the ladder by which we have come thus far. The progressive habit of thinking we can make the world better for our children by murdering the memory of our grandparents is folly. Our ancestors did well to welcome the immigrant according to their best lights. Let us praise them for that and do better, not curse them for that while doing nothing ourselves but posturing.