By now I assume you’ve read Matthew Inman’s “Columbus Day” at The Oatmeal. If you haven’t, I’ll wait. Come back and I’ll talk about holidays and what they mean…
Public holidays are aspirational. Take Memorial Day, for instance. We don’t honor our war dead in ceremonies for their benefit, thus ensuring their safe passage in the afterlife. What we are doing when we honor the dead is saying that their sacrifice mattered, and we are grateful, and that by the communicative property of social cohesion, our own sacrifices are also honorable and worthy of respect, and others are grateful for what we do, too. We recognize our connection to the past, and we would seek to emulate the past in the future.
We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the same reasons. He’s become civically deified in death, and we’ve lost track of his more radical stances, but what shines through is peaceful, civil disobedience. That a good man, speaking up, can change the world, not by force of arms, but by being seen as a fellow human by those with the power to effect change. We all want to be that man, in our hearts, standing up for what is right. We can’t all do it for all manner of reasons, but we can aspire.
All of our holidays follow this model, or they should. Holidays are not for the dead, or our ancestors, or our forefathers; but for us, the living. We celebrate because we want to connect to that past in our own fleeting existences.
So what are we celebrating when we celebrate Christopher Columbus? And are we proud of that history? Does what he did 522 years ago, and what he represents, carry forward to today? I don’t know the answer.
On the one hand, he is venerated as an explorer. I argue his exploration was incidental to his actual goals, but, as Dave Barry once put it, Columbus wasn’t the first to arrive in the Western Hemisphere, but he was the first to hold a press conference about it in Europe.
On the other hand, he and his men did unspeakable acts of violence to the people they found here. They ushered in a period of colonial oppression and death that was unrivaled in a thousand years, and that continues to echo in our own policies today.
When you get right down to it, Columbus was a man trying to make his fortune. You can’t fault a person for that per se, but you can certainly decide whether you want to emulate his behavior.
So celebrate Columbus Day if you wish. Just know what you are celebrating. But also take a moment to realize that when you celebrate a man, you get the whole thing, genocidal warts and all.