Yesterday was Columbus Day. As you know, Columbus Day is an arbitrarily assigned national holiday which serves as a tribute to a guy — who wasn’t American, or named Columbus in his native tongue — who accidentally “discovered” a land mass 32 times the size of his homeland while in search of enough not-land to get him to a bunch of tiny islands that would’ve been closer had he turned left instead of right when he first got started. A land mass that had already been populated for who knows how many hundreds or thousands of years when he got there.
As most even casually curious historians above the age of 12 or so are aware, Christoforo Colombo’s mistake became the catalyst for several centuries’ worth of exploitation, enslavement and genocide.
That we choose to honor that particular historical milestone is as darkly absurd, and as perfectly American, as it gets. That we couldn’t commit to giving it a specific day, year in and year out, might say something about the collective American conscience. But still it persists, respun into a powerful symbol of the indomitability of the human spirit by the pervasive and persuasive forces of arrogance, cognitive dissonance and historical revisionism.
Every year, the movement to call Columbus Day something else gets louder. This year, it seemed louder than ever, partially because even more people have wifi but mostly because saying that reinforces my previous claim that it gets louder every year, and also because of the recent passing of honest-to-God American adventurer Neil Armstrong.
(Which begs the question: What would have happened if Neil and Buzz had encountered aliens wearing precious metals or an inexhaustible fuel source as a decorative fashion accessory?)
Some people want to rinse the unpleasant aftertaste of Columbus from America’s palate by renaming the holiday Exploration Day. Sure, it’s more dilution than reparation — and sure, several of the other figures in that particular pantheon are arguably culpable in the destruction of myriad exotic cultures and the people that nurtured them — but it’s something, right? It’s more … inspirational. It’s less … mass murder-y. It is fully in line with the concept of the indomitability of the human spirit.
Which is precisely the problem.
It may not have been exactly part of the plan, but Columbus Day is now as important a tribute to what really happened as it is a celebration of some cobbled-together idea of manifest destiny and an opportunity to forget you’re not getting mail that day. Columbus Day is now an official annual argument. It’s a reason to disagree, right there on the calendar, every year. Columbus Day reminds some people that America was the result of adventurous courage, and it reminds some people that humanity has within itself the capacity for blind and rapacious corruption. And if it can’t be anything else, Columbus Day ought to be that day—the day that fuels either fire.
Personally, I would prefer The Day That What Was Inevitably Going to Happen Happened, or Happy Birthday Eminent Domain, or even We’re So Awesome And You’re So Primitive You Think We’re Magic Day. Columbus Day, however, is preferable to Exploration Day, or Explorer’s Day, or Happy Purity Of Purpose Day or whatever.
We need our historical black eyes, if for no other reason than this: Where some people will see a badge of honor attained in the righteous pursuit of one’s due, others will see the logical result of being headstrong and clueless.