How to handle history: Columbus Day as a case in point

A friend pointed out this episode of Thom Hartmann’s talk show and I finally got around to watching it today: Columbus Day: Why are we celebrating?

It made me think about the tension between wanting to be proud of one’s ancestors/founding ‘fathers’ and acknowledging the sometimes-awful behavior of individuals who nonetheless achieved memorable things. As I wrote elsewhere:

“Reading Christopher Columbus’s letters describing his own cruelty to the indigenous groups he encountered, people are often forced to re-examine tales of bold exploration undertaken by a heroic underdog who succeeded where all others failed and discovered a “New World” utopia. This is a historical figure who has been latterly rendered heroic and worthy of a national holiday, despite mixed renown in his own era and epistolary evidence of his inhumane attitudes. In this case, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, history from mythology, or actuality from wishful thinking. “

Most people probably agree that we can tell history from multiple perspectives, so why does a case like Columbus Day make people argue that Columbus must be wholeheartedly revered as a national hero and any other attitude is rejected out of hand? Admittedly, U.S. textbooks have often portrayed Columbus in nearly hagiographic ways far removed from the actualities of his life recorded in various types of documents. Still, even when presented with evidence of his own words about how little he valued the lives of other races, people insist that it is unfairly blackening his name to question whether he deserves cultural adoration.

I am saddened by the vitriol in some of the comments about Hartmann’s attempts to demystify Columbus by remembering his enslavement and murder of native peoples.

Columbus Day could be a day of THINKING about history and how we tell it, about how to understand the past and major characters who shaped our present, about how to get along without de-humanizing those who are different from us.

Why, instead, do people use it as a reason to repeat that infamous Bushism, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” meaning that you must give way to us or we will have to eradicate you and your culture?

Writer:  aj


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