How do you celebrate Columbus Day?
Congress is doing a full-on impersonation of Columbus, dragging us very confidently and at great expense in the opposite of the direction of where we actually want to go, so that we wind up somewhere that has no gold.
But most of us do not have those resources. We have to settle for a small gesture, like throwing a Columbus Day party where bad directions result in our going to the wrong house and accidentally giving the occupant an incurable wasting disease. And tomatoes!
Alternatively, you can claim to discover something that has been around for years and was getting on perfectly well until you showed up and ruined things, say by casting an elderly lady in a big-budget movie. Or just steal some land! Misidentify India on a map! I don’t know. Get creative!
But for many people the question seems to be increasingly not “How do you celebrate Columbus Day” but “How CAN you celebrate Columbus Day?” usually in the tone reserved for questions like, “How CAN you do this to me, Martin, after everything we’ve been through?”
These people fall somewhere on the spectrum from “Well, Look, If They Want Us To Feel Grateful To The Guy, We Should Have The Day Off” to “We Must Have The Day Off … To Mourn.”
When I went to school, a dog’s age ago (assuming the dog in question is pretty young and vigorous), Columbus was already seeping slowly out of the history book. As we move away from a person-centric view of history toward a Peoples-centric view, people like Columbus (the instigator of contact that was bound to happen anyway, in some form or other, and a brutal one at that) start falling off the edges of the map. And the more you lose sight of people like Columbus, whose stubborn bad geometry totally reconfigured the map of the occupied world, the more inevitable everything seems, like a series of tectonic plates bumping together. Now most of what you hear about Columbus is the pushback — here’s a list of three things he didn’t do, and one thing he did.
But I think there’s a middle ground between denouncing Columbus as a cruel tyrant whose only accomplishment was being noisily wrong and marching around glibly ringing off rhymes about sailing the ocean blue. The fact that history took the shape it took was not inevitable. Sure, perhaps the Phoenicians and Leif Ericson and perhaps others might have made land first, and I am not saying that Columbus’s arrival in the outskirt islands was not the occasion for some very serious woe. But this is the kind of hapless fumbling that makes history. Sometimes the country takes the shape it takes because Noble, Well-Intentioned People very carefully sat down with a map and Planned Things Out. Sometimes it takes the shape it takes because Some Guy With Too Much Confidence in Ptolemy Somehow Got A Royal Grant For Travel. Both are worth noting.
Why should we celebrate him? He was wrong. But the exchange he ignited was vitally important. Our history as a nation and a continent is defined by awkward encounters. America wasn’t the first place where people from different cultures were forced into contact and sometimes, too often, the outcome was misery. But it was certainly one of the first places where people learned from this kind of contact that there might be a better way to structure society
although by people I mostly mean “the varied new arrivals,” not “the locals.” If you were a local, this did not work out well, unless your definition of “working out well” is “having some sports teams problematically named for you.”. The shape of the populated map changed forever with this encounter.
If he hadn’t bumped into that island, we would not have the society and the government that now shines as a beacon of competence and equality and splendor and efficiency and — well, come back in a week, month, some indefinite period of time when we’re not shut down, and we’ll try this one again. To say that many people got trampled in the process and suffered from the exchange is one of those grand understatements on par with “being burned at the stake is a bad start to a Tuesday,” but this was where it started. Yes, it took us a long way from Columbus to get there. We’re still getting there. But this had never happened anywhere else! Perhaps it couldn’t have! And he was the first of those defining exchanges. That’s got to count for something, even if we don’t get the day off.
Also, he did a pretty okay job of directing that Harry Potter movie.