CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: 2020 Hindsight

The current toppling of Christopher Columbus statues across the country is like a modern version of Agatha Christie’s novel, Ten Little Indians, where a group of Brits, summoned to an estate, suddenly find themselves being mysteriously murdered, one by one. In this case, the dumping of Columbus statues has taken place out in the open, with the perpetrators visible to all (Black Lives Matter and Antifa groups, with a smattering of overzealous college students). The only statues which seem to still be standing are those in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

So far, those who have destroyed the statues – a public crime, incidentally – have yet to be held responsible. Many politicians and state officials, eager to defuse even more potential violence, have taken down Columbus statues of their own volition. The Rule of Law, which our Founding Fathers borrowed from classical Italy, has temporarily been abandoned.

Intellectual debate about Columbus and his place in history is no longer on the table. The media – and aggressive activists – have firmly made up their mind on the subject, even though Columbus’s journeys are far more complex than, say, statues of Confederate soldiers, who were traitors to our nation and openly defended slavery. The Columbian Exchange was a genuinely historical event which made the Earth move, for good and for ill.

(Incidentally, one wonders if the next item on the agenda for activists is to publicly burn Agatha Christie’s books, given her use of the politically incorrect term, “Indians.”)

Italian Americans have contributed to the chaos. One understands, but does not condone, the citizens in Chicago and Philadelphia who ‘protected’ their statues by huddling around them with golf clubs or baseball bats. One understands, but does not condone, the wholesale abandonment of Italian American history by our intellectual class, many of whom, out of (decent and sincere) empathy with Native Americans, have done very little to promote the ultimate positivity of their own culture.

In one Op-Ed, an Italian American who once proudly marched in Columbus Day parades now says that clinging to this holiday is an insult to both Indigenous People and to Italian immigrants themselves. His suggestion: replace the holiday with yet another generic Italian street festival. Truly, we eat our own.

The idea that Columbus was simply one of a myriad of Italian explorers who traversed to North America (John Cabot, Giovanni da Verrazano, Enrico Tonti, Alessandro Malaspina, and Giacomo Beltrami) apparently hadn’t crossed his mind. Not only do these other explorers not come with Columbus’s baggage (real or imagined) but they demonstrate how the Age of Exploration was truly fueled by the Italians.

More depressingly, the writer didn’t even bring up that tried-and-true cliché known and loved by all: America is a great ITALIAN name (the first name of Amerigo Vespucci, yet another gifted explorer, after whom our nation was named).

In late 2019, the Institute reached out to cultural critic Camille Paglia, who teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Long known for her thought-provoking books on feminism and pop culture, Professor Paglia is also fiercely proud of her Italian roots. In fact, in nearly every public lecture or television appearance, she always makes an allusion or reference to them, and always positively.

Needless to say, as someone who values independent thinking and who also loathes how modern academia is drive more by political agendas than research and knowledge, she is appalled. And yet, as you can see, even she feels that the current situation is becoming untenable:

 “I did indeed speak out repeatedly in the 1990s about the accelerating attack on Christopher Columbus.  Italian-American organizations tried to stem the tide back then, but it has been a failing enterprise, primarily because Italian-Americans have become so assimilated that Italian-American culture itself has virtually vanished (aside from cuisine).  Columbus Day was created to honor Italian-American immigrants, but that period and its working-class ethnic base are long gone. 

 The problem right now is that there has been a huge amount of academic writing and highly contentious debate about Columbus and his legacy over the past three decades.  As a professor, I can no longer be active in this argument without doing immense research in those resources, which include contemporary journals, letters, and government records.  To responsibly rebut the brief against Columbus, one must be immersed in those primary materials, many of which relate to the Spanish monarchy and its commercial operations.  Unfortunately, I am unable to participate because of the demands of my own research projects.” 

Unless Ms. Paglia finishes her research projects quickly, or unless the media puts the brakes on its “accelerating attacks” on Columbus, no public debate appears likely very soon. A few Columbus statues may survive, maybe even a few city names or street names, but the trashing of a unique historical figure so quickly, without any thoughtful discourse in a nation allegedly guided by “free speech,” should give us all pause. -BDC

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