Examining Columbus

Defending Columbus Day: 2015 vs. 2021

The Washington Examiner is not known for covering itself in glory in any consistent fashion; some of us, at least, will never forget that it published an execrable op-ed in February 2021 that described the mostly peaceful protest at the Capitol as “an attempted coup d’etat,” advocated for treating “the enemy with” in the same way that we treated Al-Qaeda, proposed a loyalty oath for firefighters and police officers, and argued for banning all American militias other than the National Guard.

Still, perhaps it can still serve as a bellwether, of sorts. Consider the kind of essay this self-identified conservative paper has published on Columbus Day 2015 and 2021.

In 2015, the Examiner published a Columbus Day essay by an old friend of mine, Cole Simmons, called “Columbus Day Revisited.” The anodyne title conceals the spiritedness (thumos) of the essay. Simmons’s essay is spirited, through and through. He emphasizes the spirited ambition of Columbus himself, whose “feat of bravery and ingenuity” led him to “the shores of the New World”; whose self-interested acquisitiveness should not be denigrated as “selfish,” which implies “pettiness,” but instead recognized as a great “quest around the world,” a “grand quest for riches” which can “fire the imaginations of young people,” which is itself “a good and worthwhile thing.” The morality, or even good effects, of Columbus and his voyage is not Simmons’s point here. He is taken with the magnitude of Columbus’s daring, the magnitude of his soul, and the great pedagogical need we today have for such examples of great-souled daring. But he goes on to note that such ambitious and “hard men” as Columbus are necessary for great projects such as the conquest of the New World, the spread of European civilization across it, and the destruction of the savagery of the Aztecs.

A second good reason for celebrating Columbus, Simmons adds, is because liberals have attacked Columbus. So, Simmons defends Columbus himself for his spiritedness, and takes the defense of Columbus Day the holiday as an opportunity for spirited conflict, in speech at least, with one’s fellow citizens.

Consider now an essay published by the Examiner today, Columbus Day 2021, by Christopher Tremoglie, with the conciliatory rather than confrontational headline: “We can celebrate both Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day.” Tremoglie would like to have his Columbus and his respectability, too. He defends Columbus not as a larger-than-life hero, a “hard man” of high spirit and great (if morally dubious) ambitions, but as a kind of agent of enlightenment, a man who “contributed much to humanity,” and thus one worthy of admittance to the pantheon of progressivism. “His voyages facilitated immeasurable social, economic, and political changes in the world.” (What school-child today has not learned that the point of education is to change the world?) Call it creative destruction, perhaps; but Tremoglie would have us focus on the creative part, not the destructive!

Tremoglie goes on to note Columbus Day’s origin as a holiday for Italian-Americans, who used to be oppressed. Presumably, these hyphenated Americans deserve an ethnic holiday as much as other ethnic groups, to say nothing of the identitarian faux-“communities” whose public holidays populate our liberal liturgical calendar.

But most of Tremoglie’s piece is an argument that the Natives were bad, too, just like the Europeans. Tremoglie’s points are well-made and well-taken. “Judging Columbus through the eyes of 21st-century social justice advocates is unfair. Judging his actions in the context of the 15th century is more honest.” Indeed. But we will have to discover positive goods, in Columbus’s soul or in his culture or in the consequences of his actions, in order to warrant celebrating him. Tremoglie’s catalogue of such goods is thin and uninspiring—unlikely to inspire (imbue with spirit) and encourage (give courage to) the respectable conservatives who would like not to abolish Columbus Day, at least not yet; unlikely to inspire and encourage their children, whose ears are filled with the multitudinous sins of whiteness and the West, Christendom and Columbus; to say nothing of making the entrenched enemies of Columbus Day reconsider their position.

Tremoglie complains about the inconsistency of celebrating various Native tribes and peoples for their putative contributions while overlooking their violent and brutal ways of life, all the while criticizing Columbus and the West for its violent conquest. Again, this is true, but it is largely beside the point. Tremoglie’s closing plea will fall on willfully deaf ears:

We should, in fact, celebrate Native American culture with Indigenous People’s Day. It would be culturally beneficial and worthwhile. Just don’t do it on Columbus Day.

We don’t have to disrespect one culture to celebrate another. Make room on the calendar for both.

There are three points to consider here. First, little to no one will be convinced by this: not the implacable enemies of the Columbus Day holiday, not the lukewarm conservatives who do not want another issue to divide them from friends and family and neighbors, not the Simmons of the world, who hanker for a more assertive celebration of Columbus’s assertiveness.

Second, while this civic multiculturalism is possible, it is not clear why it is desirable. Tremoglie’s emphasis on Columbus’s contributions to the progress of mankind is instructive: he must water down Columbus the man, his time, his culture, his intention, and his achievement in order to make him (or a fragment of him) palatable to 21st century Americans. We do not thereby honor the past, or acculturate ourselves to it, or even to some aspect of it, the part that we have discerned is worth keeping; we merely enjoy the benefits of the great men of the past, with hardly any attention to their greatness and its conditions.

Finally, such multiculturalism does entail a choice, to some extent a zero-sum choice. It is true that we “don’t have to disrespect one culture to celebrate another,” at least not insofar as the thing celebrated in Culture X is not hostile to a vital tenet of Culture Y. The risk, to Americans (Italian or Native or both or neither), is that we water down all our heritages, for good and for ill, and replace it with a thin, soulless, uncontroversial enjoyment of progress, the stuff that will ruffle no one’s feathers and stir no one’s heartstrings. To “make room on the calendar for both” is to denigrate one or the other or both: a civic calendar cannot bear very many holidays, or at least, not very many holidays of great import. The more you add, the less important each becomes—or at least, the less important some must become. The Christian calendar here is instructive: Christmas and Easter rule over liturgical time, and we distinguish between major and minor holidays, greater and lesser feast days. Keep crowding the civic calendar with more holidays, and some will recede to make way for others.

Few will agree with Tremoglie that Columbus and the multitudinous Native cultures for whom Indigeneous People’s Day is instituted should be celebrated equally. Who can doubt that, present trends continuing, Columbus Day will fall and Indigeneous People’s Day rise in our calendar? Tremoglie would not seem to be pleased by this course of events, but going before the present regime, hat in hand, to beg that Columbus Day be tolerated is not a promising approach.