Notes & Comments November 2021
On recent hostility towards the fifteenth-century explorer.
We write on Columbus Day, a holiday that was first celebrated in the United States as far back as 1792 but which became a national holiday only in the late nineteenth century. It’s a proud day for Italian Americans, of course. But it also offers an opportunity for all Americans to celebrate both the derring-do of an intrepid explorer and an event that started the ball rolling towards the creation of the world’s most prosperous bastion of ordered liberty. That, anyway, is the story we were brought up on.
Today, Columbus, like all things celebrating America, has been enrolled in what the late Roger Scruton identified as the Left’s “culture of repudiation.” The curious, even hypocritical, nature of this repudiation is especially patent in the most privileged and affluent precincts of our culture, in the Ivy League writ large—all those institutions that, once upon a time, were devoted to perpetuating our civilization but which now, marinated in too much money, spend their time and seemingly bottomless animus deploring everything about America and the civilization that fed it.
Consider, to take just one example, the long, graphics-filled story printed on October 11 in The Washington Post. “Columbus monuments are coming down,” the Post cheered, “but he’s still honored in 6,000 places across the U.S. Here’s where.” It begins with this tableau: “With one quick tug, a 14-foot-tall Carrara marble statue of Christopher Columbus fell, shattering into pieces. The crowd of more than a hundred, gathered in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood, erupted in celebration.” Isn’t it wonderful? Destruction of public property and the kicking of America, all in one fun-filled afternoon. There follow paeans to St. George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and sympathetic quotations from Indian “activists.” Quoth one: “We tell our kids the truth. We tell them that Columbus was a bad guy.” There are also maps full of little dots and directions for the instruction of aspiring vandals. The message is clear: “Here is where the statues honoring Columbus are, kids. Come and get ’em.” Isn’t there something about “incitement” in the statute books?
Anti-Columbus activism is not new. More than twenty-five years ago, the historian Keith Windschuttle provided a précis of the genre in The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (Encounter). Quoting various anti-Columbus (and anti-American) academics—Kirkpatrick Sale, Tzvetan Todorov, et al.—Windschuttle shows how one-sided is the campaign against early European colonizers of the Americas. The Left excoriates Columbus, Hernán Cortéz, and other Europeans for their savagery while completely ignoring the unspeakable barbarism of the natives they encountered. Taking that on board, Windschuttle notes, would have made their “moral outrage appear ludicrous.”
At the end of the day, however, the natives function as little more than props for these writers and activists. The real focus of their energy is against America and the European civilization it embodies. “[T]he interest of these writers in the events of 1492,” Windschuttle writes, “derives only in small part from any real sympathy they might have for the natives and far more from their fervour to adopt a politically correct stance against their own society.” Ironically, “they themselves . . . bear all the characteristics of the Eurocentrism they condemn in Columbus, Cortés,” and other targets. Which is to say, repudiating Columbus is merely a pretext for a larger repudiation of the culture that supports and flatters them. It is as disingenuous as it is repulsive. But it seems quite clear that the attacks will not end until their plump sources of support begin to be loaded onto the hecatombs of their juvenile and malicious fury.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 3, on page 1
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