13 October 2014

Columbus Day is the real Festivus

That second Monday in October is here again, and Americans, in some cases, will find time during the holiday to debate the legacy of Christopher Columbus. By now no one buys the idea that Columbus "discovered America," but his voyages clearly mark the beginning of an epoch of exploration and exploitation to which the U.S. owes its existence. Back in 1892, the 400th anniversary of his first voyage was a tremendous patriotic occasion from which came our present Pledge of Allegiance, if not all its controversy. Italian-Americans subsequently adopted the day as their own, their answer to St. Patrick's Day, albeit with less beer. In modern times, as his legacy of conquest if not genocide grew unbearable for many Americans, the idea of celebrating Columbus with a holiday grew more offensive. In some places "Indigenous Peoples' Day" or something like it is celebrated, while U.S. traditionalists protest that trend as a further advance of "political correctness." By this point no one, as far as I can tell, is calling for Columbus to be celebrated uncritically as a hero, but many argue that we should recognize that something important happened on or around the second Monday in October, 1492, and some feel that to repudiate the event entirely, as others seem to want, is somehow to repudiate our own national existence. So there may be parades in some places, but for the most part, when the occasion is noted it becomes the subject of argument and the airing of grievances from across the cultural spectrum. If the alternatives are unthinking patriotism and activist education about indigenous peoples, a holiday defined by debate looks just right.  If we trace our nation back to Columbus, it's only appropriate that his day be noted with griping from all sides.

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