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Sympathy for the Devil: Columbus Day and Why it Matters

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AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

Today is the second Monday of October and thus is Columbus Day. For many of us, this is little more than a three-day weekend. However, it is seen as an unjust celebration of “whiteness” and imperialism for an increasing number of Americans and signifies how uniquely evil America is. This hatred for Columbus and the misunderstanding of what it is he did is nothing new. In fact, the earliest criticisms of Columbus were made about a century ago by the old Democratic party institution, The Ku Klux Klan. The Klan did not want Americans celebrating a southern European Catholic like Columbus. They argued America was a protestant country founded by Northern Europeans. Anti-Columbus sentiment has festered and grown because of the broader apathy of many Americans who see today as a mere excuse for a three-day weekend. Even Columbus himself did not quite understand the magnitude of his voyages. He went to his grave thinking he had discovered the West Indies and not an entirely new pair of continents. Columbus and his explorations matter, though, and not just for people from the United States.

One of the common dismissals of Columbus is that he never even set foot in America. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas. So why should we care about him? What sense does it make for Americans to celebrate an Italian explorer in the employ of Spain, landing in the Bahamas while searching for the Indies?

The first thing progressives fail to understand about Columbus Day is that it is not a uniquely American holiday. It is also celebrated throughout Latin American and the Caribbean. In much of Latin America, the name used for it is "El Dia de la Raza y la Hispanidad," which translates to "The Day of the Race and the Spanish." It is seen as the first significant encounter between Europeans and native peoples, a cultural event of great importance not just for the United States but also for the Americas as a whole and for Europe. Is there evidence that other Europeans came to America before Columbus? Yes, there is. We now know Vikings were in Greenland and possibly Canada as early as the 10th century. However, was there a great cultural exchange between the natives and the Norsemen? Did the Papacy and the Royal Courts of Europe become aware of the New World and start investing in its exploration because of the Norse settlements in Greenland? The answer to these questions is no, so there is little point in celebrating them. With Columbus’ discovery of the New World came permanent settlements. It was one of the early events of The Age of Exploration, which was an undertaking by all European powers. Columbus’s discovery of The New World began a cultural exchange that changed Europe and the Americas forever. In his book America: The Last Best Hope, William J. Bennett points out that Columbus’ exploration of America introduced the potato, maize, peanuts, and turkeys to Europe, forever revolutionizing their farming practices, and Europeans introduced apples, grapes, and horses to the new world. The horse alone would become an essential element to the culture of many Native American tribes, such as the Comanches.

When criticizing Columbus, the criticism inevitably turns into a more exhaustive critique of the colonization of the Americas. There is no denying the conquest of the Americas was brutal and barbaric. That barbarity started with Columbus. He enslaved many Taino natives himself as slavery was a universal practice that spanned nearly every civilization on earth during that time. However, you must ask yourself if Columbus’ exploration made the world worse or better. Had Columbus not discovered the new world, there would be no age of discovery in which Europeans mapped and charted most of the world. There would be no Age of Enlightenment in which Europeans, specifically the British, finally recognized the evils of slavery and its incompatibility with Christianity. There would be no United States. With no United States, there would be no American Hegemony in the second half of the 20th century and no period historians call The Long Peace. We are still living in The Long Peace, and it is recognized as the most prosperous time in human history. The United States and the western world have been irrefutable forces for good and human progress. Therefore, we owe Columbus a debt of gratitude for blundering into the Bahamas in 1492.

The criticisms of Columbus have nothing to do with Columbus’ actions and everything to do with tearing down the United States and remaking it into something unrecognizable. The urban liberals who claim to be so offended by Columbus Day could easily donate their property to a Native American tribe and then move back to where their ancestors came from in Europe. They aren’t doing that, though, and they never will. They don’t actually care about these injustices they claim to be trying to correct. They care about power, and they’re trying to shame you into giving it to them. Don’t. Be thankful for The Age of Exploration and how it changed not only the United States but the whole of the Americas and Europe, and please, have a happy Columbus Day.

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