Monday, October 8, 2012

The Controversies of Columbus Day

We're here! We're Euro! Get used to it!
When I was a kid, which I freely admit was a remote moment in history now long past, we used to take this holiday pretty seriously. We'd make Ninas, Pintas and Santa Marias, populate them with gentlemen dressed in the military regalia of that time (it involved some aluminum foil), and set them off to discover the New World. Which is where we are now. Europe being considered the Old World. Probably because the people there had grown bored with being pushed around by a bunch of bejeweled tyrants, most of whom believed that by carrying on in their wicked ways were actually fulfilling the wishes of God. Which is quite an assumption if you think about it.

In 1492, after having sailed the ocean blue, Columbus and his foil clad followers landed on an island somewhere in the Caribbean. Not having the satellite navigation technology that our modern military fleets enjoy, he thought he'd succeeded in his goal and had landed in India. There they had spices Europeans craved because of their rotten meat diet, and Christopher needed to scoop a bunch of that stuff up and get it back to Europe pronto. That is if he wanted to keep his deal with the Queen of Spain in compliance. Like a lot of the big projects in California today, Christopher Columbus and his exploration process was highly dependent upon large amounts of government funding.

The people he met on the storied isles of the Caribbean were mistakenly proclaimed by Columbus to be Indians. And the name stuck. Though the term Native Americans has become widely used today, it was unavailable to Columbus at the time because Amerigo Vespucci hadn't been born yet. What the people Columbus ran into that year preferred to call themselves is unknown to me. Maybe it had something to do with catching fish, or pleasing the Gods.

It turned out to that these visits from Columbus, along with those who followed him, were not such a good deal for the Indians. Vast numbers of whom died rather nasty deaths throughout the Caribbean basin, mostly due to venereal diseases. Which just goes to show that you really should think twice about dating sailors. Even if they are resplendent in their shining armor. Of course, in exchange for this cruel insult the Indians were able to help addict many generations of persons of European ancestry to tobacco. The effects of which we can still see today. So this slaughter of the vices has been a two way street.

Today Christopher Columbus and his quest for curry has become a metaphor for certain specific political agendas that don't really have much to do with an actual historical context. Most politics is a bad joke, of course. The messages usually shared with the people being about as true as an email from someone living in a remote third world backwater claiming that they just happen to have a few million dollars of your money. And all they need is your bank account number to get it to you.

A convenient example of this can be found in the undergraduate musings of current Sierra Madre City Councilman John Harabedian. Writing for the Yale Daily News (click here) in 2002, and taking what he probably believed at the time was a position of great importance to Native Americans, he argued for ridding the calendar of Columbus Day. Here is what John had to say about this holiday:

According to Ward Churchill in "A Little Matter of Genocide," by the time of Columbus' departure in 1500, the native population had been reduced from as many as 8 million to about 100,000, and by 1514, with his policies still a part of the institution of government he created, the native population had dropped to a low of 22,000.

Granted, many of the deaths were the result of disease, but does this in any way absolve them from any guilt? It is widely known that many of the deaths during the Holocaust resulted from disease and the terrible working conditions of prisoners were subjected to, but these deaths are still seen as part of the total loss resulting from Nazi policies and are not justified by saying that the Nazis "may have erred in their ways" and "cannot be blamed for inadvertently spreading germs" within the prison population.

And, not all germs were spread "inadvertently" as Clyne would like to believe. It is well known among the educated community that Lord Jeffery Amherst instructed his men to use smallpox-contaminated blankets to "extirpate" the Ottawas. Given these widely known facts, we fail to see how our comparison to the suffering of indigenous peoples in the Americas with the suffering of the Europeans at the hands of the Nazis in anyway "lacks historical integrity and disrespects the victims of Nazi genocide."

Columbus Day, while seen by many as the great beginning of "democracy, liberty, human rights, the belief in a transcendent god, and liberal education" in what was to become known as the United States, is seen by us as the great beginning of the Native American Holocaust. While the experience of the Europeans at the hands of the Nazis embodies the true meaning of the word (to be consumed by flame), our holocaust was one in which our people, culture, land and ideas were consumed by the metaphorical fire that raged across the continent and continues to rage this very day.

Where I went to college we were warned about the dangers of comparing historically unrelated events to the Nazis and Hitler. The lesson being that this was overdone and not much respected by those with a wider appreciation of history's vast pageant. No matter how heartfelt your beliefs might be. The advice here being you really ought to strive for comparisons that are a bit more fresh and imaginative.

Not everyone shared in Councilman Harabdian's now decade old opinions on Christopher Columbus. And among those who vigorously opposed such viewpoints was the Commission for Social Justice, the anti-defamation arm of The Order Sons of Italy in America. Writing on behalf of those organizations, and done in order to defend the reputation of what for many Italian-Americans is an important hero, Vincent Sarno and Albert De Napoli penned the following:

For much of its history, the United States considered Columbus a man worthy of admiration. Columbus Day is one of America's oldest patriotic holidays, first celebrated in the 18th century. America has more monuments to Columbus than any other nation in the world. Generations of American school children studied his life and accomplishments. Teachers held him up as an example of a person of character, who overcame strong opposition and great disappointment, but never gave up trying to prove what he believed to be true.

Since 1992, however, the reputation of Columbus has suffered at the hands of special interest groups who have used the 15th century Renaissance navigator to further their 21st century political and social agendas.

As a result, today Columbus is often depicted as a slave trader, racist, and even "the Hitler of the 15th century." A small but vocal number of historians, journalists, text-book writers and teachers have helped spread these charges despite their questionable foundation in historical fact.

They have done so principally by judging a quintessentially Renaissance man and his actions by contemporary values. It bears noting that England did not outlaw slavery in its colonies until 1833; the United States until 1865 and Brazil in 1888. Some nations in the Mid-East, Asia and Africa continue the practice today.

Despite this controversy, Italian Americans continue to hold Columbus in high regard both for his historic achievements and also because Columbus Day is the only day our nation recognizes the heritage of an estimated 16 to 26 million Americans of Italian descent, who are relentlessly stereotyped by the entertainment, news and advertising industries the other 364 days of the year.

A decidedly different viewpoint from that expressed by the Councilman.

Now nobody has asked about the next point, but that has never stopped me before. I, too, have an historical outrage that sorely needs addressing. That being the continued honors bestowed upon Julius Caesar. In particular the practice of calling the 7th month of the year "July," which was actually changed centuries ago from something else in his honor.  

I, in case you ever wondered, am almost exclusively of Celtic ancestry. That being Scotch, Irish and Welsh. Something that has given me a stereotypically rebellious nature along with a flair for language. In my person I embody all of the races that were run out of Europe by Julius Caesar and his fellow Emperors, and slaughtered by the millions along the way.

As an example, Caesar is often celebrated for his conquest of Gaul. Mostly because he wrote a couple of books about it that survived the Dark Ages. Yet how many are aware that Gaul was not only a Celtic nation, but that a million of its people were murdered by Caesar during his conquest? It is a pain that my people continue to endure, even today.

I think is is time that the name "July" be expunged from our calendar forever. No longer should this butcher and tyrant, and destroyer of democracy as well I might add, be honored by having a month named after him.

What I am proposing here is that the name of the 7th month of the calendar year be changed to that of the great Celtic military hero Vercingetorix. This will help people to become more aware of the great cultural achievements of Celts, plus aid those who have had difficulty mastering the more challenging aspects of pronunciation as well.

http://sierramadretattler.blogspot.com

33 comments:

  1. What alarms me most is that our "wonder boy" councilman, should quote a dishonered nut case like Ward Chuchill.

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  2. No denying, Columbus changed history. He was also an A-hole. He eventually was taken back to Spain as a prisoner in chains by his own crew. The recognition of the Spaniards' barbarity and treachery is legitimate. Same goes for many future European colonists looking to expand commerce under the guise of Christianity. America still suffers from this practice today. 'In God we trust'. The whole Celtic nonsense is cute for about three seconds but ultimately reveals it's 'angry white man' origins.

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  3. The Native Americans were almost annihilated by the people who came to live on their land. You can spin tales one way or the other about the hows & whys of it, but that group of people was decimated.
    I disagree with the Nazi comparison because of intention and method - not end result.

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  4. Yeah, the whole 'jump to Hitler' debate tactic is about as hackneyed as the folks who call you that 'Steve' guy everytime you give an opinion they don't like. Adolph, please feel welcome to respond.

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    1. I'm not sure that Steve is going to enjoy being compared to Hitler.

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  5. Compared to Cortez, Columbus was a good will ambassador.

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  6. Genocide has been standard behavior on this old world for a long time. We can be glad that it's not as rampant as it once was, and that nations are no longer encouraged to take over other nations.

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    1. Too bad Dubya didn't get the memo...

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    2. Bro, there's a lot going on outside Sierra Madre you don't know about.

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  7. There was no Italy when Christopher Columbus sailed for the King and Queen of Spain, as there was no Spain as we know it today. There were a collection of Principalities and Columbus was from an area that today the natives of the western hemispher, remember that this was the "old world" to thousands, refer to as "that Geneoan."

    As for Harabedian's sensibilites. Remember that his native country, Armenia, is divided as spoils between Turkey, Russia and Iran and millions were slaughtered in the 1920's.

    I share his concern for little known, and much misrepresented history.

    My ancestors fled from religious persecution of the Protestant English against the French Catholics. They hid in the woods for years before turning themselves in and being imprisoned on an island in Halifax Harbor. Many died as they were transported to England and then to France from disease and ships that sank on the voyage.

    I have cousins that I can trace back twelve generations who live in Louisiana. We are Acadian and Cajun survivors of this and one of them got Queen Elizabeth to appologize for the illegal deportation of the Free French Neutrals. She also appologized to the Irish for the role of the crown in the Irish potato famine among other attrocities.

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    1. I could swear John Harabedian is an American. Because if that isn't the case, if you are born in American you are considered an American, there's some serious re-labelling that must be done.

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    2. I doubt that there is a single ethnicity that cannot lay claim to being the victim of some historical tragedy or other. The question being what does that have to do with the world as it is today?

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    3. A whole lot if you happen to live in the West Bank (not related to Bank of the West).

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    4. I believe I can say with great confidence that all of us living today have cousins that can be traced back at least 12 generations and quite literally to the earliest of the species. All of whom can be associated with some skirmish, or battle, or war, or attempt at genocide. I fail to see your point...

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  8. This whole thing with characterizing people of various ethical/cultural descent with certain traits is a distortion of reality. Columbus, for example, was born in Italy, but moved around the continent and lived primarily in Portugal with his Portuguese wife. He petitioned various governments for the costs of his exploration, including Italy and Portugal, but finally cut the deal with Isabella of Spain. None of it has anything to do with "honoring" Italians or Native Americans or anything else, but you wouldn't know it given the fracas that arose during the 1992 Rose Parade when Cristobal Colon (a descendant of Columbus) shared the route with Ben Nighthorse Campbell (native american congressman).

    http://articles.latimes.com/1991-12-31/local/me-1420_1_ben-nighthorse-campbell

    The article includes an interesting comment about tokenism and symbolism. People are getting all worked up over imagined traits within a distorted history, and it's primarily about current politics and money, as usual. And anybody who wades into the Nazi Holocaust arena is just asking for it. Genocide is not the same thing as slavery and/or conquest. Genocide has mass murder at its heart and is the whole intent behind human extermination, and is the worst evil on the planet. That has no comparison to the search for resources, money and power which has the unintended consequence of killing large numbers of people. Much like the "wars" the USA has engaged in for the last half century which is apparently defensible.

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  9. Pretty heavy going today. I once gave a speech in speech class about the fear of public speaking, using the example of Columbus sailing across the ocean with many of his crew fearful of falling off the edge of the earth, but instead arrived at a new world and new experiences. Just as a public speaker, afraid of facing an audience that may be hostile, can give a speech that would give them a new world and new experiences. I was met by a hostile audience who criticized me for being politically uncorrect by using Columbus as my example. This was probably the same time that Harabedian was writing his politically correct essay.

    My answer then as it is now -- Get a life. Why not let the Italians have their day? Besides, I was born in July and don't wish to change all my legal papers to Vercingetorix as my birth month.

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    1. You can abbreviate. Ver.

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    2. One of the important lessons in speech class is to know your audience...

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    3. Another one is that worrying about what people think is an oxymoron.

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  10. Somewhere between the Romanticizing and Demonizing lies the human beings.
    Let's just hope we grow closer to the attributes of the first category rather than the second one.

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  11. Yumpin' yiminy! It hasn't occurred to anyone yet at the Tattler that conquest for new land or religious freedom or freedom of any kind had anything to do with why we find ourselves here today. The grim reality my friends is that it was all about gold. Gold! Sheckels. Deutchmarks! Pounds! Yen! Dollars! Francs! Roubles! And by God we'll do anything, enslave anyone to achieve these ends. Happy Columbus Day!

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  12. Mr. Moderator, I think some Tattlers have been in the expresso this AM.

    Suggest y'all try an iced decaf this PM. Cripes.

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  13. The historical record will show that syphilis was an added "gift" given along with tobacco to Columbus's sailors.It made it's first appearance in Europe in 1494-95 in Naples.Tit for Tat....

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  14. Holidays are a lot of work nowadays.

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    1. Santa Claus uses Chinese slave labor. He makes Steve Jobs look like Eugene V. Debs.

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  15. Guard against ignorance in all of this.

    Yes, we all share, just under a few layers of generations past, different religious and ethnic origins that were slaughtering each other in village streets and on the heather covered hillsides of the "old world" over these differences. Yet, a big group of Americans wants to believe that we are a nation under one god, theirs-- with just one prophet, theirs.

    It is not so much that we need to keep these animosities from the past alive, it is a much more important question that needs asking: why are we still doing this to people?

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  16. We are the beneficiaries of a vast worldwide commercial network that doesn't hesitate to use military might when it is needed to keep the supply lines open. We can believe that none of this is our doing, but it is our consumption habits that make it happen.

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  17. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

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    1. Et tu (fill in the bank).

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  18. My Fellow Sierra Madreans, I comment here on Columbus Day with a heavy heart. On this page tonight I see Columbus accused of being a brutal, heartless invader; a metaphorical arsonist; and worst of all, a total A-Hole.

    Somebody even took a shot at the great Julius Caesar, who invented the entire month of July as well as a delicious salad without which we would not have Lunch as we know it today. The Gauls just can't let it go that the Romans kicked their derrieres but good, and they've been belly-aching in the Asterix comic books ever since. They had their chance to name July and they blew it. End of story. Please let it rest, mon freres. You won a great victory in the battle to import Absinthe. Let that be enough.

    But back to Columbus Day: Please understand that as a person of New York Italian descent, I, too, understand the bitterness of conquest. My own native land, the Lower East Side, is--at this very moment!-- being divided as spoils between Luxury Condo Developers, Affordable Housing Developers, and Local Manhattan Community Planners based in Arlington, Virginia. Millions of rent-controlled apartments will be demolished by the time those clowns get done 'improving' the old neighborhoods.

    Plus, the Yankees lost a playoff game tonight because they used a starting pitcher older than the dirt in the Roman Coliseum. Honestly, how much more can we take?

    As for Columbus starting a fire that consumed the native cultures of an entire continent, give me a freaking break. Columbus didn't even know what continent he landed on for Pete's sake! He was passed-out drunk half the time. But the fact that Chris turned out to be a fast-talking hustler from Genoa who got lucky with some good publicity, is no reason to deny millions of decent, hard-working Italians a well-deserved holiday.

    So let's keep Columbus Day a glorious celebration of courage, exploration, and, let's face it, slick marketing. Sure, Queen Isabella got sold a bill of goods but come on, she's not the first to fall for a dreamy, handsome guy wearing an Italian suit and talking a good line. We can't blame her. Although I do wish we could blame somebody. Things are really a mess out here.

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  19. Finally! A good comment on this thread! Though I'd rather have a Day to Commemorate Genocides World-Wide, thanks 11:28.

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    1. Are you for them or against them?

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