Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Battle over Christopher Columbus

Was Christopher Columbus a hero or a villain? That is the question at the heart of a cultural debate now raging. It is a debate that is, I believe, crucially important because it cuts to the heart of our national identity. A pair of op-eds highlight the basics of the issue. On the pro-Columbus side is Thomas A. Bowden of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. He writes:

“We’ve been taught that Columbus opened the way for rapacious European settlers to unleash a stream of horrors on a virgin continent: slavery, racism, warfare, epidemic, and the cruel oppression of Indians.

“This modern view of Columbus represents an unjust attack upon both our country and the civilization that made it possible. Western civilization did not originate slavery, racism, warfare, or disease--but with America as its exemplar, that civilization created the antidotes.

“Throughout history, prior to the birth of Western civilization in ancient Greece, the world seemed impervious to human understanding. People believed that animistic spirits or capricious deities had supernatural powers to cure diseases, grow crops, and guide the hunter’s arrow toward his prey.

“This pervasive mysticism had practical consequences: festering disease, perpetual poverty, and a desperate quest for survival that made offensive warfare against human beings seem as natural as hunting animals. Such was the plight of America’s Indians before 1492--and such was Europe’s own plight, once the civilizations of Greece and Rome had given way to the mysticism of Christianity and the barbarian tribes.

“It was Western philosophers, scientists, statesmen, and businessmen who liberated mankind from mysticism’s grip. Once scientists revealed a world of natural laws open to human understanding, medical research soon penetrated the mysteries of disease and epidemic

“On a much wider scale, the Industrial Revolution employed science, technology, and engineering to create material goods in profusion, so that even people of average ability could become affluent by historical standards.

“Western civilization’s stress on the value of reason led inexorably to its distinctive individualism. Western thinkers were first to declare that every individual, no matter what his skin color or ancestry, is fully human, possessed of reason and free will--a being of self-made character who deserves to be judged accordingly, not as a member of a racial or tribal collective. And thanks to John Locke and the Founding Fathers, individuals were recognized as possessing individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness--rights that made slavery indefensible and led to its eradication, at the cost of a civil war.

“These are the facts we are no longer taught--and the measure of that educational failure is the disdain with which Columbus’s holiday is regarded in the country that owes its existence to his courage. It is time to take back Columbus Day, as an occasion to publicly rejoice, not in the bloodshed that occurred before Columbus’s arrival and after, but in our commitment to the life-serving values of Western civilization: reason and individualism. We do so by honoring the great explorer who opened the way for that civilization to flourish in the New World.”

Giles Howard takes Mr. Bowden to task in his op-ed at The Pitt News entitled, Conservatives, libertarians better off leaving Columbus controversy alone:

“But Bowden’s identification of Columbus as a representative of Western civilization who brought reason and individualism to the Western Hemisphere ignores the historical record.

“Far from Bowden’s construction of Columbus as a Promethean figure who brought liberty and reason to the Americas, contemporary records and Columbus’s own writings depict him as a savage governor, representative of two anti-liberal pillars in Western history: fanatical Catholicism and the government of Ferdinand and Isabella.

“It’s easy to put a positive spin on the grand impact of Columbus’s actions because, after all, none of us would be here today and the United States would not exist if it weren’t for Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Western Hemisphere in 1492. That being said, it’s much more difficult to defend Columbus as a man rather than a historical idea because his personal conduct reveals a profound barbarism.

“Indeed, Columbus’s rule was considered so savage during his own time that Ferdinand and Isabella had him arrested, brought back to Spain and imprisoned. Whatever his supposed role in the expansion of Western civilization, Columbus was understood during his own time as a barbaric tyrant and his actions, as recorded by his contemporaries, reveal him as a savage man who instigated countless atrocities in the new world.

“It is fascinating that support for Columbus has emerged nationally from an [O]bjectivist think-tank that’s … adopted their hemisphere’s first slave-trader as a symbol of Western civilization’s ‘reason and individualism.’

“[Instead of] picking a fight with the historians who did so much to discredit Columbus and the indigenous movements that continue to identify Columbus Day as an inappropriate celebration of genocide … The Ayn Rand Center should leave such battles to the religious Right that Ayn Rand herself so disdained and continue to do good work in the service of individual liberty…”

So who’s right? In fact, both are, factually. The real battle is analytical. The resolution of this issue comes down to essentials. In a previous op-ed, Mr. Bowden writes:

“We need not evade or excuse Columbus’s flaws--his religious zealotry, his enslavement and oppression of natives--to recognize that he made history by finding new territory for a civilization that would soon show mankind how to overcome the age-old scourges of slavery, war, and forced religious conversion.

“Thus, the deeper meaning of Columbus Day is to celebrate the rational core of Western civilization, which flourished in the New World like a pot-bound plant liberated from its confining shell, demonstrating to the world what greatness is possible to man at his best.”

The emergence of Western Civilization that Columbus unleashed was a revolutionary new direction for man in his painstaking rise from the cave. All of the negatives cited by Mr. Howard were commonplace during Columbus’ era, and not unique to him. This is the context that must never be forgotten. The essential truth about Christopher Columbus is his achievements and the historical chain of events that they made possible. This is what should be stressed.

In a letter of rebuttal to Mr. Howard, Amesh A. Adalja, MD puts it succinctly:

"Judging Columbus by the standard of today, given the context of the world he lived in, is invalid. If Howard wants to judge Columbus as begetting barbarism, he must apply the same judgment on the natives. For, in comparison to the New World, 15th-century Europeans were ages more civilized than the savage tribes residing in the Americas.

"The world owes Columbus its eternal gratitude for discovering, and paving the way for the civilization of, the New World. The Ayn Rand Institute should be lauded for not cowering in the face of the multiculturalism-worshiping establishment and recognizing the heroism of Columbus."

Human history progresses along a logical, hierarchical path. This is by no means always easily recognized or apparent. Fundamentally, it is ideas … i.e., philosophy … that motivate human beings and ultimately chart mankind’s course. The ideas of reason, science, and individualism that gave rise to Western Civilization and the United States of America… and that Columbus exemplified and advanced to the New World … is the primary historically significant fact. His atrocities are insignificant by comparison to the tremendous human good that Christopher Columbus’ vital role played in bringing it about.

Count me on the side of Christopher Columbus in this battle. Respect for Columbus and his achievements have been eroding for some time. Thomas A. Bowden has done a tremendous service to America by pushing back against the nay-sayers and helping to revive this lost respect. Context is crucial when analyzing history, and Mr. Bowden provides it. Mr. Howard, the “indigenous movements”, and the “historians who did so much to discredit Columbus” have it wrong; not factually but contextually and, consequently, as a matter of justice.

Note: Thomas A. Bowden is the author of The Enemies of Christopher Columbus and the lecture Columbus Day Without Guilt

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