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The Case Against Columbus
It’s autumn again in America. But as hurricane season draws to a close, a final storm approaches.
Columbus Day is back. And with it, renewed charges of the explorer’s villainy; charges made, as always, from the cushy confines of the continental United States. Tension is higher than ever in the wake of recent protests targeting virtually all of Western history.
Christopher Columbus is a triple threat: white, male, and Catholic, he sailed from Inquisition-era Spain as if he had nothing to be ashamed of. Once a national hero, he now endures an annual show trial evoking the Cadaver Synod of AD 897, where the corpse of Pope Formosus was dug up and tried with full ceremony by a succeeding pontiff. Like Formosus, Columbus is posthumously found guilty. But at least the decomposing pope was assigned a proxy deacon to answer the charges.
Who stands in for Columbus?
The traditional case against the explorer began in his own age with the rivalry between Catholic Spain and the Protestant English and Dutch. Imperial ambitions aroused bloodlust on all sides, but with the arrival of the printing press, anti-Spanish bias crystallized into what became known as the Black Legend—an exaggeratedly negative account of all of Spain’s history, most famously the American expedition and the Inquisition.
But while the actual barbarity of the Spanish conquest needs no embellishment, the Black Legend will admit of no mitigating factors, such as that Spain alone among the American colonial powers passed laws protecting the natives. Such laws were loosely enforced but, according to Francisco Macias of the Library of Congress, “the very fact that the Spanish went as far as drafting and promulgating laws whose sole purpose was to improve the treatment of the Indians should still be recognized to have been a significant advance.”
To make matters worse, the behavior of Christopher Columbus himself is seldom distinguished from that of his more vulgar companions and successors.
In later centuries, countless factions were inspired by the courageous explorer. His name would grace the U.S. capital district, innumerable localities in North and South America, sailing vessels and spacecraft, and a media empire. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition, minted commemorative coins of both Columbus and his patroness, Queen Isabella. Hers was the first U.S. coin honoring a woman—a fact ignored by progressives.
But it was an ugly episode of lawlessness that eventually begat Columbus Day.
The First Columbus Day
In 1891, eleven Italian Americans were slain by an angry mob in New Orleans as vengeance for the murder of a popular police chief, who with his dying breath allegedly blamed the “Dagoes.”
Stoked by the resulting not-guilty verdicts and three mistrials (speculated to be the result of mafia influence), as well as by a local press enjoining the masses to rise up against the encroaching Sicilian population, the frenzied horde opened fire on the recently acquitted Italians. The ensuing butchery resulted in the largest single lynching in U.S. history.
Italian Americans were understandably dismayed, but the incident took a toll even on relations with Italy, which went so far as to recall her ambassador to the U.S. As part of a public-relations recovery effort that included reparations to the victims’ families, President Benjamin Harrison announced a singular nationwide Columbus Day celebration in 1892. Subsequent advocacy, including by the Knights of Columbus and President Franklin Roosevelt (and always with the memory of New Orleans in mind), culminated in a “permanent” federal holiday in 1968.
After yet another turbulent voyage, Christopher Columbus finally seemed fixed in the Western pantheon.
His prestige was not to last. In the twentieth century he fell under renewed attack, this time not by global rivals or scandalized Churchmen but by his own beneficiaries—by those who’ve reaped the most from his derring-do. And his targeting now was part of a broader condemnation of Western history and tradition.
While the old dispute had a whiff of religious and nationalistic chauvinism, the modern Columbus controversy, though substantively similar, is a microcosm of the West’s assault on its own culture—on its very self.
Where America’s Self-Criticism Began
America’s suicide by self-criticism began when the leftist philosophers at Germany’s Institute for Social Research fled west seeking safe passage from the Nazis. Collectively known as the Frankfurt School, these pioneers discovered America in 1934, making landfall, fittingly, at Columbia University.
Disillusioned by Karl Marx’s failed prediction of the widespread collapse of capitalism, and recognizing that the strength of the bourgeois West lay in its culture—its religion, tradition, and family—the Institute shifted socialism’s corrosive powers from strict economics to social matters, and Cultural Marxism was born. With a veneer of clinical detachment, academics proceeded to find fault with the West at every turn.
But do most people sincerely share this bias? Or, by copping the language of sociologists and psychologists, are they just feigning intelligence by association? Or, further, is fear pushing average folk into rejecting their heritage—the same fear progressives will allege kept Christendom in line for two millennia? Fear, in this case, of a scarlet letter “C” sewn on the chest for publicly defending Columbus?
History has come full circle. The endless criticism will continue to weaken the guilt-stricken masses to accept increasingly radical measures in the name of righting past wrongs. “Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people,” taught community organizer Saul Alinsky in his Rules for Radicals. “They must feel so frustrated, so lost in the prevailing system, that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future.”
Mission accomplished, Mr. Alinsky.
A sober salute to warriors and worldly figures conflicts with neither Church nor State. At least it didn’t until the arrival of history’s version of the New Math, wherein, as satirist Tom Lehrer once quipped, “the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.”
In the end, Columbus disputants can agree on one thing: if Nelson Mandela was right that racial and religious enmity are acquired, that “people must learn to hate,” then America’s self-loathing is a scholarly achievement worthy of highest honors.
About the Author
James Brown holds a master’s degree in history from Montclair State University (New Jersey) and was inducted into Alpha Epsilon Lambda, the national honor society of graduate and professional school students. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two boys.
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