IMAGE: Protest against Columbus Day, 1992
Yesterday was Columbus Day. I saw the parade pass by the Museum of Modern Art in downtown Manhattan. People were happy. I am, of course, aware of the controversy that surrounds Columbus Day, and the widespread protests that have taken place since 1992, the 500 anniversary of Columbus’ historic voyage. Many Native American and activist groups have campaigned against the existence of the holiday; I personally didn’t feel too strongly one way or the other.
Now I hesitate to even touch on this subject, since most of the discourse associated with it is so miserable on either side that it tends to swiftly devolve into empty, back-and-forth accusations of racism on the one hand and politically-correct historical revisionism on the other. For those who are critical of the holiday and would like to see it removed, Columbus Day is nothing more than an open celebration of the imperial conquest over native peoples, of the genocidal consequences that followed Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies. Some who have advocated for its removal have even proposed that it be replaced by the observation of an “Indian Resistance Day.” Oppositely, those who remain supportive of the traditional celebration of Columbus Day charge that this is just another hit that’s been taken out on a heroic figure of world history, simply for having been a “dead, white, European male.” They allege that the attacks on Columbus’ personal character are vicious and often exaggerated, and that many of the attempts to diminish the significance of his 1492 voyage (by pointing out supposed contacts with the New World apparently established by earlier explorers) are based on dubious evidence. All in all, the controversy surrounding Columbus Day is incredibly overblown. Still, since it’s become such a popular target of pseudo-leftist critique, it might warrant a brief reinspection.
Not that the stakes of the debate are really all that high, beyond matters of just pure symbolism; rather, what is more significant is the fact that there even is such controversy at all. For those who consider themselves to be part of the Left, the adoption of this critical standpoint with regard to Columbus Day has the appearance of being exceedingly radical, as a challenge to the conventional wisdom of European triumphalist historiography. As one ostensibly Marxist article polemically asserts, “[t]o celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder.” However, the elevation of this supposedly radical critique to the point where it’s become little more than a convenient provocation directed against the Western imperialist metanarrative, is symptomatic of a broader tendency within the contemporary Left.