Anyone who loves science, or who at least pays attention to American popular culture, knows the name Neil deGrasse Tyson. Since the late-1990s, via his lectures, books, and TV shows, Dr. Tyson has surpassed his mentor, Carl Sagan, as our nation’s most well-known astrophysicist. With his booming laugh and child-like enthusiasm, Tyson is a disarming blend of likable comedian and commanding presence (think Bill Cosby–before his fall–crossed with Morgan Freeman).
To paraphrase a comment which a viewer posted underneath one of his ubiquitous YouTube clips, Dr. Tyson takes abstract scientific concepts and simplifies them for the common folk in a way that’s both entertaining and profound.
Surprisingly, he also does so with history, which I learned when I stumbled upon a 2018 YouTube clip of him on interviewer Joe Rogan’s in-studio podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
The subject was related to a topic which, oddly, is currently in the news: Christopher Columbus, specifically, the trashing of his statues across America by a combination of Black Lives Matters protesters, angry Antifa anarchists, and pro-Marxist marchers. I still have no idea how I stumbled upon this clip. Maybe, like Columbus’s navigational style, it was a bit of “dead reckoning.” I definitely didn’t expect America’s most respected scientist to mouth the following words:
“Columbus coming to America was the most significant thing to happen in our species.”
After a few seconds of stunned silence, Joe Rogan’s one-syllable response mirrored my own: “Whoa!”
Dr. Tyson then went on explain to the “Columbus haters out there” (his words) what our institute has always maintained: Without disavowing the genuine suffering of Indigenous People which followed the exploitation of the Americas, Columbus’s act of successfully connecting two separate strands of the human species (“this is the first time this happened in 10,000 years!” Dr. Tyson marvels) was a world-changing event that altered planet Earth forever.
One of those happenings, as Dr. Tyson relates, was the blending of peoples and cultures. For instance, today’s Puerto Ricans are descended from the Tainos, the original inhabitants of the first islands Columbus encountered. Once the Spanish fully colonized the area long after Columbus, they intermarried with the Indigenous People. And, a bit later, when African slaves were imported to work in sugar cane fields, the Spanish/Taino/African mix begat the creation of the Puerto Ricans, a proud people fiercely proud of their multi-cultural roots.
Dr. Tyson is himself a living example of this, the son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother. Why, then, would such a learned man actually praise the man who allegedly “oppressed” his own people? Is he a provocateur, an Uncle Tom, or one of those self-loathing “ethnics”?
Dr. Tyson is neither. He is a trained scientist. And, as such, he zeroes in on facts. In this case, he sees “the bigger picture” – Columbus’s voyage had the force of a planetary explosion. What today’s anti-Columbus crowd are debating are the shards of that explosion, both good (the creation of the United States of America) and bad (a nation created in liberty which yet managed to exclude slaves, Native Americans, women, and even foreigners).
These aren’t unimportant; but, in their zest to literally re-write history, the protesters who are destroying statues (illegally, by the way) are blunting any kind of civil discourse on the subject. The Rule of Law, which the Founding Father’s borrowed from my classical Roman ancestors, is being subverted by chaos, criminality, and confused thinking.
Dr. Tyson’s laser-like mind shows us the way to go: Intellect, not emotion. Facts, not hyperbole.
For example, even though an admirer of Columbus, Dr. Tyson also relates a story to show how the Admiral of the Ocean could be less than admirable. In 1504, shipwrecked after his fourth voyage, desperate to feed his starving men as they awaited rescue from Spanish ships, Columbus intimidated the Arawak tribe into sharing their food rations by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse. When it happened a few days later, it frightened them into finally complying.
Note: Columbus didn’t berate the natives, he didn’t threaten them, and he didn’t physically harm them. He used his advanced knowledge of the stars to save face so as not to further stir his Spanish crew members’ already mutinous behaviors. Indeed, when reading Columbus’s journals, which scholars like Professor Carol Delaney have actually done, it becomes clear that the Spaniards deeply resented his outsider status as an Italian from the start; their atrocious treatment of the natives could be construed as examples of deliberately undermining his leadership.
Why would Columbus use rationality to get himself out of such a pickle? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just kill the Arawaks? Does this not reflect the same calm, measured thinking process which Dr. Tyson uses to praise Columbus?
Compare this to the statement made by Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa on the night anarchists first tried to dismantle the Columbus statue in Grant Park: “Columbus was a documented human trafficker and pedophile.”
Not surprisingly, no sources are given. And again: If true, why would someone of Dr. Tyson’s intellect (and ethnicity) still find historical value in what Columbus the explorer – not necessarily the man – accomplished?
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez have been two of Chicago’s most vociferous anti-Columbus critics. Both of are of Puerto Rican descent. Are they not aware that, if not for Columbus, they most likely wouldn’t even be “Puerto Ricans,” not to mention citizens of a nation where the concept of free speech allows them to raise their voices?
If you want to hear what thoughtful, non-combative discourse sounds like, here is a link to Dr. Tyson’s clip. Enjoy.