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Posted at 02:26 PM ET, 10/08/2012

What’s wrong with Columbus Day?


Here’s a parade! (Seth Wenig - AP)
Happy Columbus Day!

Happy Columbus Day, I am told, is not the proper greeting. “Pssh,” everyone responds. What’s to celebrate? America had been going on a long time before Columbus discovered it. “If anything,” hipsters sneer, “Columbus should be disregarded for forcing America to go mainstream.”

We don’t even get the day off. And what’s it doing in mid-October, even if we did? What are we supposed to do? How do you celebrate Columbus Day? I celebrated it by telling everyone I was going to one place, then going to another place instead and pretending not to notice. With Apple Maps, this happens rather more often than I would like. This is also how I celebrated last Tuesday. The only difference was that this time I took all the inhabitants home with me as tribute, and by the end of the exchange, some of us had tomatoes, and others had syphilis.

If you really want posterity to hate someone, name a holiday after him, and then force everyone to show up at work, as increasingly happens on Columbus Day.

Federal holidays are given and they are taken away.

We no longer notice Columbus Day. Columbia University doesn’t notice, and it’s named for him. Large swaths of the District of Columbia pay no attention to the day. In Berkeley, Calif., this is “Indigenous People’s Day.”

Columbus Day was created as a federal holiday in 1968 in the same law that specified federal holidays should fall on Mondays. When Columbus Day started, 38 of the 50 states already observed it. Now, nearly half a century later, we may observe it, but no one seems to celebrate it. Columbus is held up in tweezers and squinted at dubiously. He was not a discoverer. There was nothing to discover. The New World had been sitting there doing just fine without horses, and the Old World had been sitting there doing just fine without syphilis.

Described in its most basic terms, it is easy to find fault with the Columbian exchange — You gave them what? In exchange for what? And now there’s a potato famine? — and maybe discovery is not the right word, but Columbus’s voyage absolutely changed the course of history.

Columbus represented more than that guy who got lost on the way to India and bumbled his way into another continent. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, he was supposed to symbolize the hopes of generations of immigrants who came to this country. “By commemorating Christopher Columbus’s remarkable voyage, the nation honored the courage and determination of generation after generation of immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in America,” the report noted.

And the voyage is indeed remarkable.

What Columbus did when he got here is less so.

And the voyage almost didn’t happen. Columbus had been traipsing from royal court of Europe to royal court of Europe, seeking backing. King John II of Portugal refused. France and England refused. “This seems faulty,” everyone said — except Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, willing to give the man a shot. Of course, the voyage was faulty. His calculations were off by hundreds of miles.

Columbus never even noticed his biggest achievement. He kept insisting he'd found India.

Still, his voyage deserves celebration. That was the intent of Columbus Day — to celebrate all the folks sailing off into the unknown, even if they didn’t quite know where they were sailing. Many people have not lived up to their legacies. But without Columbus and his startling tenacity, we would not be here. That’s worth a little celebration. Even if we don’t get the day off.

By  |  02:26 PM ET, 10/08/2012

 
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