I certainly don’t object to the day off, but I do question why we’re still honoring Christopher Columbus in the year 2015.
We only have ten federal holidays in this country. For your convenience, I have listed them below in consecutive order, giving the apparent rationale for each, followed by the official names in parentheses:
1. Hangovers, quickly forgotten resolutions (New Year’s Day)
2. Civil rights martyrdom (Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
3. The Father of Our Country (Washington’s Birthday)
4. Heroes who perished in the line of duty (Memorial Day)
5. Fireworks, beer & barbecue (Independence Day)
6. Workers (Labor Day)
7. Accidental discovery followed by more than four centuries of rape, robbery, slaughter & enslavement (Columbus Day)
8. Soldiers & ex-soldiers, dead or alive (Veterans Day)
9. Gratitude (Thanksgiving)
10. Santa & the Savior (Christmas)
At least one of these things does not belong with the others.
Like most Gen Xers, I learned the noble myth of Columbus in elementary school. Later, as a history major, I studied primary and secondary sources that revealed the real man: a daring, greedy mariner and mercenary whose crimes against the Indians disturbed even the jaded sensibilities of the crown that authorized and underwrote his expeditions. It is noteworthy when your inhumanity to man offends brutal rulers who launched the Spanish Inquisition, completed the Reconquista, and expelled Jews and Moors from their realm. (Readers unfamiliar with modern scholarship on Columbus can find a very quick tutorial here.)
Tradition by itself is rarely a good reason to keep doing something foolish. Obvious examples of practices long overdue for dumping include slavery, bigotry, sexism, the Confederate flag, and those car commercials with Matthew McConaughey.
Our ancestors who celebrated Columbus Day were largely ignorant of his real record, or so greedy for land and benighted in their views of Indians that they wouldn’t have cared, anyway.
Presumably, we’ve progressed since then.
Columbus Day only became a federal holiday in 1937, when FDR — who enjoyed overwhelming political support from Italian Americans — decided to throw a bone to some of his most loyal constituents.
Italian Americans remain among the most intense defenders of the holiday.
As someone with a tiny tincture of Italian blood, I’m a little embarrassed that my distant relatives persist in admiring Columbus when Italy also has given the world so many worthier figures, like Galileo, Dante, Petrarch, a few good popes and Roman emperors, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Sophia Loren.
Of course, we can’t have a federal holiday for people with no real connection to the United States, but the list of accomplished Italian-Americans is similarly long, even when you exclude mafiosos. Consider: Enrico Fermi, the Ghirardellis, Jacuzzis, and two remarkably uptight Supreme Court justices, plus countless mayors, state governors, Cabinet officials, members of Congress, Catholic prelates, actors, athletes, and musicians. Moreover, without Bill Hanna’s Italian-American partner Joe Barbera, our culture would have neither the Flintstones nor Scooby-Doo nor Josie & the Pussycats.
Come to think of it, we don’t really need a holiday for Italian-Americans. Rather than recognizing a particular immigrant group, we should follow the lead of Latin America and several US cities and spend the day honoring this continent’s first inhabitants, who heroically resisted the tyranny of Columbus and the invasions of our ancestors.
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