Columbus the Scumbag?

Today (well, technically tomorrow) is Columbus day, the day when residents of the New World used to celebrate the onset of colonization, and the formation of the dozens of nations that have peopled North and South America for the past half-millennium with their bronzed, clean-limbed, healthy living, civilized ways; the opening of the new frontier, the opportunity to bring civilization and salvation to the savages, and hew a new way of life out of the flesh of the previously un-touched wilderness.

It is now perhaps more popularly known as “white guilt” day, the day when people who are culturally descended from those early settlers and the people they conquered go into reflexive spasms of regret over the conquest of a paradise uncorrupted by the sins of European so-called “civilization. It brought environmental catastrophe, plagues, wanton slavery, and ugliness hereto unseen on the face of the earth.

I’d suggest that both camps would be helped considerably by reading Columbus’s diaries and some primary sources from the intervening centuries (i.e. stuff written at the time, not later interpretations), but in my experience that would do very little to illuminate the discussion. More’s the pity–in a world where there are persistent social problems involving repression, slavery, genocide, and merchantilist cronyism, the jingoistic crowing on one hand and the paroxysms of masturbatory guilt on the other hand have the cumulative effect of cultural blindness.

So, for the record, and in the hopes of shedding a little light on a day which usually generates meaningless heat, here a few potentially relevant thoughts:

Every square inch of the globe has been taken and retaken in wars stretching back to the beginning of human settlement. Nobody is a native, with the possible exception of the Australian Aborigines (they are the one aboriginal people whose history I don’t know well enough to include in this group).

Slavery, rape, warfare, and genocide, are human universals–each has been practiced in some form everywhere, in all cultures, aboriginal and agrarian, primitive and technological, since the beginning of recorded time, with one exception: The post-enlightenment western world from the late nineteenth century onward. Although the debates over just war, women’s rights, slavery, property rights, and freedom have been popular among philosophers since the fourth century B.C.E., it is only in recent centuries in the Western World that they have been able to gain enough of a foothold to become (slowly, haltingly, and imperfectly) the dominant ideals of a civilization.
Pretending that the crimes of Europeans against aboriginal American nations are uniquely cruel, unprecedented, or a fight of warlike bullies against peaceful victims is ahistorical, dishonest, and racist both against the aboriginal peoples and the different peoples that settled the New World. Worse, it diminishes the continuing presence of these practices in our world in forms as brutal and wretched as any in history.

Europeans are not a unified racial or cultural group, and were not considered one in the US until the mid twentieth century. Many writers had to fight for the right to include Italian, German, and other non-English and non-French characters in their novels during the early decades of the twentieth century. In terms of colonial behavior, the conduct of the Portugese, the French, the English, and the Spanish were all radically different.
It’s no accident that England became the dominant world Empire for three centuries–they were the only power to allow dissent, encourage native education, and, in some measure, allow local native governments to retain a degree of autonomy, and it’s no accident that countries who have thrown off the English yolk still maintain peacable and very friendly relationships with the mother country. No other colonial power in world history has enjoyed this circumstance, and it exists because of the way the English treated their subjects–cruelly, sometimes despotically, but almost always better than the native governments they displaced. It is perhaps an irony of history that the practice of constitutional democracy and the contempt for feudalism and dictatorship spread across the world through the stepchildren of history’s most extensive imperial monarchy, but the historical fact remains:

The colonization of the new world by the people who did so, at the time they did it, allowed Enlightenment ideals to flourish far from the watchful eyes of Torquemada, Calvin, Luther, Elizabeth the First, and the other despotic dictators of the period who were heavily into thought control. In the New World (and nowhere else in history), the ferment of notions such as “The Brotherhood of Man,” “Human Rights,” “Civil Rights,” “Freedom of Thought,” “Freedom of Speech,” and “The Equality of Women” took hold. It spread first to Europe, and then over the next few centuries, to the entire world (which now, at least, pays them lip service). That ferment is directly responsible for the citizen-based governments now present in almost all former British colonies, which to this day represents a disproportionate segment of the non-oppressed people of the world.

To note these differences in imperial approach, and their effects, is not to justify the racism, sexual oppression, theft, and violence that accompanies even the most genteel of historical colonial expansion. It is good and appropriate to reflect, to be self-critical. The freedom and moral imperative to do so is, perhaps, the most important legacy of the Enlightenment. But doing so dishonestly, often in service of reactionary political thinking and uninformed by an understanding of history, is neither enlightened nor laudable; it is simply self-righteous bullying, which is ugly on everyone.

Finally, in keeping with the theme that seems to be emerging in this post, there’s one more thing worth pointing out: One of the basic notions underlying Enlightenment civilization is this: a person’s destiny is not predicated on their heritage. I am a writer. My father was a professor. His father was a rancher, then a laborer. His father was a dirt farmer. Four generations, five different careers. Many people on this continent are less than three generations away from slavery–one of them sits on the Supreme Court. In any other era, in any other civilization, my destiny, your destiny, and the destiny of almost everybody would have been prescribed by law based on the social position of our births. Today, though birth has a definite effect, no law binds us to the position we start in.

It is, therefore, immoral to identify a person as an oppressor because of her heritage, or as oppressed because of his heritage. Each person is responsible for his own conduct and destiny and (though the ideal still is very imperfectly practiced and should never be taken for granted) should not be judged based on the crimes–or lack thereof–of his ancestors.

So, by all means, let’s have the debate. Let’s talk about the unintentional bacteriological extermination of entire nations. Let’s talk about the breaking of treaties, of the deliberate biological warfare, of the eugenics laws, the thefts, the enslavements (by many names). Let’s talk about the innovations of government by the Iriquois–and by Solon of Athens, whose ideas were ignored until resurrected by James Madison. Let’s talk also about the Aztec sacrifices, the pre-Columbian continent-wide warfare, the warlike tribes of the southwest, the raiding parties (provoked and unprovoked), the rapes and child prostitution on both sides of the Indian wars. Let’s talk about the unintended consequence of the colonial conquest of the Americas: a world climate in which colonialism is all but impossible, where invasion of a peaceable nation often provokes a near-universal military response from the other nations of the world.

And do let it be a genuine debate. Let us eschew both jingoism and masturbatory guilt fantasies. Let us throw off the suffocating weight of sacrament–both the ashen sackcloth and the waving flag. Let us instead engage in an honest exchange of ideas for mutual enrichment, rather than a shouting match of competing, unenlightened, and blinkered moral paradigms.

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6 Comments

  1. Hm.

    Funny, I can’t think of anything to add…

  2. Well said, Dan. Like Nobilis, I can think of nothing to add.

  3. Thank you all for reading and commenting 🙂

  4. /Very/ nicely written. Thought-provoking and, well, well-done.

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