Friday, October 7, 2022

Scott Siskind's Imaginary Debate over Columbus/Indigenous Peoples' Day

Always worthwhile examing the actual beliefs that underlie our political pronouncements. An excerpt from a long post:

Beroe: A hundred years ago, when everyone wanted to honor the Italians, it would have been galaxy-brained and annoying to object to Columbus Day. People would have accused you of just wanting an excuse for your anti-Italian bigotry. It’s not like it’s going to normalize the youth taking over the West Indies and enslaving the local population!

Adraste: Maybe those people would have been right! Maybe the point of holidays is to teach people lessons, and which holidays are good or bad depends on what lessons need to be taught. If the big conflict in society is about whether or not to accept Italians, and nobody is thinking about Native Americans either way, then maybe it’s correct to honor a famous Italian, so as to emphasize our support for Italians’ rights. And a hundred years later, when nobody worries about Italians anymore, but lots of people worry about Native Americans, then honoring an Italian who killed lots of Native Americans sends the wrong message, and so we deprecate the pro-Italian holiday in favor of a pro-Native-American one. In the very unlikely chance that, a hundred years from now, the descendants of Aztecs are powerful and privileged, but the descendants of their sacrificial victims are marginalized and there’s a debate about whether or not to accept them - then we should scrap or re-work Indigenous People’s Day to emphasize that we support the victims’ descendants. Until and unless that happens, why bother?

Beroe: Allow me to try a hostile rephrasing of your point. There is no such thing as genuine heroism worth celebrating, or traditions worth keeping - only raw power. Whenever we need a group to join the left-wing coalition, we’ll signal allegiance to them by celebrating their ancestors and demonizing their enemies, regardless of who was in the right. If we stop needing their votes, or they start voting conservative, we’ll demonize their ancestors and celebrate their enemies instead, again regardless of whether this involves active lionization of evil. Do you think that’s substantially different from what you’re saying?

Adraste: You changed “society is preventing pogroms against a marginalized group” to “left-wingers are cynically milking people for their votes”, so yes, I would say it is substantially different.


Bedell: As I have hinted at here before, an insistence that we not celebrate people, peoples, or movements that have done horrible things leads to celebrating nobody and no one. Which does not mean we cannot make distinctions, but I think Adraste is right here that those distinctions are always made according to the political and moral needs of the present. I don't think we are capable of a universal moral calculus that can meaningfully weigh the lives of people across thousands of years of time.


G. Verloren said...


The first major flaw underpinning this entire imaginary debate is the false dichotomy of either honoring a mass murdering Italian who employed rape, torture, and mutilation to maintain order among people he enslaved... or honoring no Italian at all.

You want to create a holiday to honor some sort of Italian? Why Columbus specifically? Why not, say... Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was already celebrated as the man who unified Italy? Sure, he was no angel himself, but he was a far cry from the monster Columbus was, and he was lauded in his own time by some pretty lofty figures from around the world whom we still respect today.

Or how about a largely unimpeachable figure, like Elena Cornaro Piscopia? The first woman to ever earn receive a doctorate degree; a genius and polymath, bestowed the title of 'Oraculum Septilingue' for her mastery of seven languages (beyond her native Venetian); a doctor of philosphy, as well as an expert theologist and mathematician; a virtuoso musician, playing violin, harp, harpsichord, and clavichord; basically an all around exemplary person, who epitomized all the highest ideals of Italian culture, as opposed to being an utter villain like Columbus?

If all you wanted to do was create a holiday to honor the heritage of Italian Americans, there is no shortage of suitable figures to choose from, with no need to honor someone as heinous as Columbus. So why Columbus?

Well... because of the second major flaw underpinning this entire imaginary debate: the incorrect assumption that the point of Columbus day is / was to celebrate Italians.

pootrsox said...

Given that it was the very very Catholic Knights of Columbus who agitated for the legal holiday, I think G. V. is on to something here.

G. Verloren said...


The actual history behind the holiday utterly belies the notion that a hundred years ago, people "wanted to honor Italians": Columbus Day wasn't created as a celebration of Italians, but of America. (And it also wasn't created a hundred years ago.)

The first observance was in 1792, and was the creation of Tammany Hall - the ruthlessly cynical political machine of New York; also known as "The Columbian Order" - as in the cultural figure of Columbia, the personification of America. The Holiday was not a celebration of Italians or Italian culture, but of the discovery of America itself, and of the emergent American cultural and political identity. Additionally, this first observance was also a local one-time event, meant specifically for the tricentennial of the discovery - not to be a recurring holiday.

A century later, the idea was revived for another one-time event, this time as a national holiday rather than a local one. This was done in direct response to a bout of racial violence that had exploded that year. In 1892, the nation was in turmoil in the wake of a racially motivated mass murder perpetrated against Italians, and the subsequent ethnic unrest that it sparked off.

Wanting to promote calm in the face of literal race riots erupting across the country, the authorities decided it would be a wise move to make some sort of symbolic gesture of conciliation. Thus Columbus day was a chosen as a way of saying, "Hey, look - we're all Americans here! So stop killing each other! Please!" Again, it was not a celebration of Italians, it was a celebration of America and American unity, used as a convenient excuse to try to smooth over the fact that Americans were NOT actually united, but plagued by longstanding racial conflict and intolerance.

And this was all part and parcel of a general trend at the time to try to promote a united American identity before and above individual nationalities, religions, creeds, etc.

This was the age of the "World's Columbian Exposition", once again using a centennial anniversary of Columbus' voyage as an excuse to promote America itself, rather than Columbus or Italy. This time period also saw the inception of the Pledge of Allegiance, and of the Daughters of the American Revolution. This is the time when Jim Crow Laws first gained their name; the time in which America as a whole chose to turn a blind eye to the injustices of continually mounting racial segregation, all in the name of maintaining American "unity" between the North and the South. This was not a time in which people "wanted to honor Italians" - it was a time in which Italian Americans were being forced to assimilate, made to abandon their language and culture in order to become "better Americans".

G. Verloren said...


Now, to be fair, by the time of 1934, many assimilated Italian Americans had chosen to embrace Columbus Day as a mark of self pride, and had begun to reframe it as a celebration of Italian heritage, rather than of America itself.

This was largely possible due to the efforts of the Knights of Columbus - an organization founded to promote Catholicism in America. They were all too happy to seize upon Columbus Day as a useful political tool for their own agenda. This was all very deeply tied up in the politics of New York at the time.

The Knights of Columbus (with assistance from Generoso Pope, a powerful and influential Italian American businessman from New York City, with direct ties to Tammany Hall) successfully lobbied Congress to pass a statute which did not actually make Columbus Day an actual official holiday, but which urged the president to make an annual proclamation in favor of the day's observance.

It wasn't until 1968 that Columbus Day was signed into law as a federal holiday, but the first such holiday wouldn't take place until 1971.

All in all? It's a pretty bizarre choice for a holiday, with obvious cynical political motivations riddled throughout its history, and it hasn't actually been an actual official holiday for very long at all. Personally, I'm in favor of replacing it with... virtually anything else.

Want to celebrate Italian heritage? Fine by me! Pick any of the countless famous historical Italians who weren't barbaric monsters, and go to town! There are plenty of great Italians to choose from, and lots of great aspects of Italian culture to hold up and idealize!

Or maybe you want to celebrate "American unity" instead, as was the original intention of the holiday? Sure, why not! But maybe celebrate the ideal itself, rather than Columbus? Or at the very least, focus the holiday around someone who isn't symbolic of the exact polar opposite of "American unity", the way Columbus is?

Shadow said...

Adraste's nibbling around the edges of no objective truth. IHis argument sounds appealing, but what if instead of values changing every hundred years, they changed every twenty years or every generation. How stable would society be?

Shadow said...

I regret that first sentence. It's not objective truth I'm thinking of, although he's definitely nibbling around the edges something important. Anyway, my point lies in the next two sentences, and not that first one.

John said...

Serious reponse: it is always possible to find cynical motives for any political decision. The first example to come to mind is the Nicene Crede, arrived at by political maneuvering within the imperial court, with words added or removed to buy off various religious factions. And yet it remains one of the pillars of Christianity.

But just because something is done to buy votes doesn't mean it is bad. What is wrong with promiting American unity? Do we want another Civil War? If not, then we need to promote unity really hard. It certainly won't promote itself.

As for choosing some other Italian to honor in the US, it would obviously have to be someone who came to the New World. Garibaldi is out. I'm not fan of Columbus, but he is the most famous Italian since the Roman empire fell, and in his monstrous, genocidal way he changed history like few other people have. Connecting Europe to the Americas was momentous, and it led to the world we live in.

The most extreme Native American activists don't just hate Columbus, they want all white people to go back to Europe, and all black people to Africa. Unless you're on board with that program you need to think about, not choosing between Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, but finding a way to reconcile them.

Shadow said...

Where's the unity? I don't see it.

The most extreme people always want something extreme to be done. Will these extremists be less extreme because you changed your holidays but are still here? In a diverse society where cultural grievances exist, I would say do away with statues and holidays that worship individuals because someone's hero is always someone else's tormentor. And a merry-go-round of heroes is just a way of guaranteeing a fresh new cadre of the aggrieved. Heroes don't age well. They get more than a little tarnished as values change. Statues and national birthday parties celebrating historical figures are for homogeneous societies and not for diverse ones.

G. Verloren said...

As for choosing some other Italian to honor in the US, it would obviously have to be someone who came to the New World.

Obviously? How so? It has to be someone who came to the New World? Why? Unless, as I suggested, the actual point is not to "honor Italians", but rather to honor America?

Compare to Saint Patrick's Day - a far more popular and widely observed holiday in America (even if isn't an official Federal holiday; and even if it's primarily just an excuse to eat corned beef and cabbage, drink Guinness, and wear green). If Saint Patrick's Day had not yet existed, and people proposed it as a holiday to observe in order to "honor the Irish", no one in their right mind would have thought to object to it on the grounds that Patrick never came to the New World! The only mindframe in which that would be even remotely comprehensible is if you were fixated on using "Ireland" as a convenient excuse to glorify "American" instead.

People should at least have the courage of their own convictions. If you just want to glorify America in a holiday, just come out and do that openly, without the misdirection of invoking Columbus on the flimsy pretext that you are "honoring Italians".

Or if you actually do want to honor Italians, then choose one who is actually worthy of being honored, and don't try to shoehorn in some sort of nonsense about "they have to have come to the New World", because that's not relevant! Either you are honoring Italians, or you are not - you don't get to weasel around and play both sides of the issues.

...or I guess you can, but then don't be surprised when people are call out the obvious hypocrisy and start asking, "Do we actually even ~need~ Columbus Day, if this sort of underhandedness and dishonesty is how people are going to try to justify it? Maybe we ~should~ replace it with Indigenous Cultures Day, or whatever...."