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Monday, October 14, 2013

Taking the Chris out of Columbus Day

Jonathan Twingley/The Los Angeles Times
Perhaps I am naive, but I assume that serious debates about the merits of Columbus Day have been settled.

I hear no firsthand defenses of the holiday.  I hear no one seriously defend him as a person or praise his "discovery" of the Americas as anything other than a kind of accident that was fortunate for him and unfortunate for millions of others.  So I do not give him or his holiday much attention.

But then, since I teach American Indian literatures at a university, I am not surrounded by people prone to defend him. On my campus, people are more likely to talk about the door he opened for the importation of commercialized slavery, apocalyptic diseases, and conquistadors than about anything positive he may have been credited for in the past.

The Los Angeles Times, though, ran a defense of sorts for the holiday in Sunday's edition. The op-ed  piece by an emeritus professor from UCLA, "Curiosity set sail with Columbus," attempts to credit his journey with "prying loose European curiosity from the vise put in place by the medieval church."

The claim strikes me as ironic since so much of the ensuing colonization of the Americas was enabled and empowered by the Catholic Church, including the enslavement of Indians.

Although the article mentions the "unintentional holocaust" caused by diseases that crossed the ocean with the Europeans, it does not mention the intentional holocausts of mass slavery, imperialism, and genocidal warfare.

In fact, the newspaper itself may have been a little ambivalent about the retired professor's opinion. The op-ed is accompanied by an illustration that conveys a message (intentional or not) that undermines the words.

Granted, the image shows Columbus on top of the world and a generic church figure on the bottom; this suggests that he has perhaps upended some balance of power in the world.  But Columbus has a really creepy hand holding his stomach; it looks rather skeletal.  And his face is strangely obscured along his jaw and neck, with odd markings in the air by his face and shoulder -- are they insects?  I do not know what the artist intended, but to me Columbus looks a bit like the Lord of the Flies.

Rather than representing the Light of Knowledge, he looks like the Specter of Death. The op-ed suggest he was some kind of vanguard of the Enlightenment, but the illustration suggests he was harbinger of Doom.

The church official below him looks somewhat skeletal himself, and his red robe suggests something hellish as much as holy.  Rather than looking like opposites, the two figures look like partners in crime.

I have no problem if the retired UCLA professor wants a new holiday to celebrate Europe's emergence from some intellectual black hole.  Let's just not call it Columbus Day.