Now that Columbus Day is over, and nobody will be fighting about it until next year, I thought I’d briefly explore some of the Bad History behind that embattled and defended holiday. I don’t like naming national holidays for people, events, and movements anyway, but Columbus Day has always been an especially strange one—unique, really—and if it’s on its way out, I can’t imagine anyone truly feeling that we’ll lose anything. Defenses of keeping Columbus Day rest on culture-war agendas, not on arguments about historical importance; they seem as uniquely lame as the holiday itself is uniquely weird.
For one thing, it just seems wildly absurd, on general principles, for anyone to want to celebrate, as if it were an unalloyed good, the earth-shaking moment when Europeans first began claiming and establishing imperial title in the Western Hemisphere. The rank inappropriateness of expressing public delight in that pivotal historical moment stems largely from the almost incommensurable degrees of human suffering that ensued, eagerly perpetrated by people like Columbus himself, and more importantly by the big forces behind him. That history, with its many backgrounds and ramifications, should of course be studied and publicly discussed, but celebrating it resembles celebrating something on the magnitude of achieving nuclear fission in the laboratory. Stunning, impossible to imagine not forever existing in human affairs, badly needing to be accepted and dealt with rationally, impossible to deal with rationally—the only proper approach might be what people must mean when they talk about the fear of God.