“Imagine if Christopher Columbus had come back from the New World and no one returned.” — Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) in Apollo 13
They’re coming for the statues now. And history. And memory. The purveyors of political propriety who dictate the latest of whose in and whose out may swing around in any direction, at a moment’s notice, and point bony fingers at past heroes and declare them anathema. So who will be next? Who will be the latest victim of our past who cannot muster the madness of the new norms of societal acceptance? And, what test must they pass in the eyes of the pretended proletariat who falsely claim to be champions of justice?
Columbus, I think. It’s already happening. He probably doesn’t stand a chance.
He’s been under attack in academia for years. Are there reasons for this? Yes. Of course there are, as is the case with anyone we put under a microscope and see for the first time through the eyes of modernity or post-modernity. But, that’s no reason to discount what Columbus achieved. He prevailed where the Vikings failed; he transcended ordinary thinking and centuries of legitimate doubt that said no one could sail west to reach the prize of the Indies because there were no ports to replenish and re-provision ships on such a long voyage. What Columbus did took guts, and it was based on a unique vision of how the waves and winds acted in concert. It required a brave and extraordinary man to not only sell this idea to the courts of Europe, but to actually do it.
But that not what modern man remembers. Actually, he doesn’t remember because he doesn’t really know the full story. He knows only that Columbus brought destruction on an innocent populace. Search any Common Core web site and find that—surprise!—Columbus was actually a very bad actor in a very bad play that brought nothing but misery and disease and slavery to the innocents of the New World. Thus, he must not be emulated, esteemed, or (God forbid!) remembered in granite as a hero for Americans of Italian heritage to honor and respect. Trust me. This is coming to a town near you. But, why?
For the very same reasons they uproot statues of Robert E. Lee. Like Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, and you name it in American history, these people had their faults and were a product of their times. Yet there are those today who cannot countenance any sins whatsoever that do not yield to their righteous indignation. Much like a preacher who only sees someone else’s sins and not their own, they clamor for popular acceptance thereby alleviating personal culpability. Case in point is Quinn O’Callaghan, who wrote a commentary piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. In his diatribe against the anticipated Philadelphia Columbus Day Parade he says this:
The truth is that the defenders of Columbus Day and Confederate statues are the ones committed to rewriting history.
No. The ones committed to rewriting history are those who ignore or dismiss it, or who deliberately skew historical evidence in order to achieve a political agenda and maintain power in the battle over Western culture. While Columbus is now often portrayed as greedy and even genocidal, the facts about his Catholic faith and piety are routinely ignored. As O’Callaghan asserts: “Monuments and holidays celebrating Columbus extol the Schoolhouse Rock edition of a conqueror and killer. … Columbus was a murderer and a zealot, responsible for the depletion and destruction of entire societies.” O’Callaghan has clearly drawn deeply from the influential trough of the radical Howard Zinn (1922-2010), whose best-selling A People’s History of the United States (1980) relentlessly portrayed European explorers as vicious and exploitive. (As The New Republic observed, Zinn “reduced historical analysis to political opinion.”)
But far from seeking wealth and personal gain, Columbus was driven by a desire to evangelize, as historian William H. Carroll summarized:
He was sure—and he was right—that there was land to the west within reach of the sailing ships fifteenth-century Europe had. He was convinced that God had chosen him to reach that land, hidden from the Western world for ages, which the Roman philosopher Seneca had once prophesied would be revealed. His discovery would bring the Catholic Faith, to which he was devoted, to the people who lived in that land.
For decades we’ve been looking at history through skewed lenses, seeing only what we’re told to see. It’s been a history lesson in optical illusion where facts are replaced or dismissed or ignored to make room for a triumphant exposition of progressive clarity. No, Columbus was not perfect, as Carroll notes, but he was not a monster; on the contrary he “was a flawed hero—as all men are flawed, including heroes—and his flaws are of a kind particularly offensive to today’s culture.” It brings to mind Hilaire Belloc’s observation (in writing about the Reformation) that “the most difficult thing in the world in connection with history, and the rarest of achievement, is the seeing of events as contemporaries saw them, instead of seeing them through the distorting medium of our later knowledge.”
When my kids were younger (and even to this very day), I told them to look at the big picture when witnessing and evaluating current events. Because anything current has happened before, whether we like it or not, in some form or another. Our culture dictates us to view ourselves, each other, and those who came before us with a new morality that is anything but transparent. In doing so, we fool ourselves. Nothing much has really changed in the past millennium or two when it comes to mankind and human behavior. We’d like to think that it has and that’s a comfort to us. But, human nature—whether it was Christopher Columbus’ or ours—hasn’t changed that much at all. I think Rodney Stark said it best in his book How the West Won (ISI, 2014):
Perhaps the primary conclusion to be drawn from these historical episodes involves the fundamental similarity of human nature. Just as there is nothing surprising about the fact the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas imposed great empires on those unable to resist them, so too it was to be expected that Europeans would impose empires on the people of the New World, especially since those indigenous peoples lacked metal weapons but were not short of precious metals. It surely is an instance of moral progress that colonialism has become unacceptable – at least in most Western societies. But it is pointlessly anachronistic to suppose that sixteen-century Europeans, Aztecs, or Incas should have known better.
Christopher Columbus was and is an icon of Western civilization. He ushered in the Age of Discovery; he found a way west to a New World. He was a flawed man of his age who should be honored in our times for his great deeds. Let parades march in Philadelphia for as long as we can honestly appreciate history and those who made it.