Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Columbus Day’ demonstrates ignorant view of the past

By Benjamin Clabault

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A week ago Monday, the United States celebrated Columbus Day. The federal offices in Washington, D.C., were closed and the University of Massachusetts did not hold classes.

Students at Brown University had the day off as well, but as far as they were concerned, Christopher Columbus had nothing to do with it. In 2009, after student protests and a faculty vote, the school replaced the name “Columbus Day” with “Fall Weekend,” a decision that brought substantial criticism The Brown University College Republicans promptly held a rally for reinstating the holiday and Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor David Cicilline decried “the decision to simply erase the celebration of an incredibly significant moment in world history and Italian-American culture for the sake of political correctness.”

The backlash toward anything perceived as “political correctness” seems to be a relatively normal conservative reaction. People get used to names and labels being what they are, and any change based on a newly iterated complaint seems pointless and trite. Columbus Day is Columbus Day because that’s just what it is. It always has been, and might as well remain so. Sure, Columbus did some bad stuff, and sure, it could have been named something else, but now it is what it is and to change it would just be silly.

I understand this argument. I even might have made it before. But, upon examining the wider narrative of the history of the United States, the idea of celebrating a Columbus Day seems absolutely absurd.

My argument for a name-change has nothing to do with petty political correctness. The problem at hand is much larger than an offensive name for a federal holiday. My concern is that the celebration of Columbus Day is representative of the American tendency to forget the dirtier aspects of our past.

When Columbus arrived in the “New World,” he did not just pave the way for future atrocities; he set the precedent for them. Upon meeting the peaceful Arawak people in the Bahamas, he wrote in his log, “With fifty men we could subjugate them all.” After his second expedition – a zealous search for slaves and gold – he wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

His attitude typifies the toxic mix of racism, cruelty and greed that has marked the past centuries of imperialism. Europeans, newly “awakened” from the Dark Ages, descended upon the rest of the world, exploiting, enslaving and massacring the “inferior” people they met. Amidst this process the United States was born.

Since our independence from Great Britain we have continued the trend. The list of offenses against non-European people could sound something like a rendition of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” There was slavery, genocide, broken treaties, ceaseless lies, military intervention and ethnic-based wartime detentions. Our history is not just that of the first country to build a representative democracy, but also that of an aggressive imperial power.

But most Americans do not see the blood on our nation’s hands. As schoolchildren, we’re taught of the beautiful and glorious history of the United States. We hear all about Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. We celebrate Flag Day. We learn about the Normandy Invasion and Bunker Hill.

But do we ever hear about the 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, when American troops slaughtered 164 people living peaceably in a Cheyenne village, most of them women and children promised protection by local military leaders? Do we ever learn about the 1968 My Lai Massacre, when American troops slaughtered about 500 Vietnamese men, women and children? For the most part we do not, as our education reinforces an ignorant faith in the benevolence of the United States.

Americans have a lot to be proud of. Most of us cherish the ideals of democracy and freedom (even if our government often fails to promote them). Most of us believe in the principle of equality (even though we’re certainly not there yet). Without a doubt, we should celebrate the things that make America great, and we often do. But in Columbus Day we find ourselves heralding a man who personified the worst aspects of our political past: greed and heartless exploitation.

Our generation should demand a name-change for Columbus Day, not for reasons of political correctness, but to demonstrate that we will not accept a star-spangled narrative of the history of the United States.

Benjamin Clabault can be reached at [email protected]

1 Comment

One Response to “‘Columbus Day’ demonstrates ignorant view of the past”

  1. Mike on October 20th, 2014 12:30 am

    I don’t know where you went to school but we learned about all the above… and we still celebrated the “ideals” of columbus day while being respectful of the negative consequence and less than moral behavior.

    There is a difference between self-loathing and being cognizant of past failures.

    For better or worse we can’t changed what happened in 1492.

    Mike

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