Tradition is overrated. There is absolutely nothing inherently honorable or appropriate about sticking to customs from a time gone by, particularly when those customs violate basic tenets of human decency that we hold today.
In fact, one might say that it is our responsibility as a modern and enlightened society to go back and correct traditions that commemorate past mistakes. I’m sure few would disagree with that last sentiment on principle, yet as a country we tend to ignore these issues even when they stare us in the face.
Note that there still exists a federal holiday honoring a known genocidal explorer for an achievement that he himself was unaware of. I speak, of course, of Columbus Day.
As most TU students are undoubtedly aware, last Monday, October 12, was Columbus Day. While we still had classes, federal buildings around the country (as well as courts, banks and some businesses) closed their doors.
One local Oklahoma institution, however, was involved in headlines for refusing to acknowledge Columbus Day at all. The Student Government Association at the University of Oklahoma signed into effect a resolution recognizing October 12 as Indigenous People’s Day instead.
Political correctness is often a double-edged sword, especially as it is used more and more frequently to stunt free speech. Taking provisions to avoid offending every possible demographic usually ends up producing a bizarre fragment of the truth. With that said, I don’t think OU was out of line at all in its decision, and it is about time that the rest of the country began following suit.
What is it that’s really even being honored on Columbus Day? For those who might not be familiar with the story of the famous explorer beyond the fact that “in 1492, he sailed the ocean blue,” Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator who undertook an attempted trade voyage to the East Indies by way of an Atlantic passage under the patronage of Queen Isabella of Spain.
No connection existed between Columbus and the British Empire, the founder of the colonies that would actually grow to form the basis of the United States. Furthermore, Columbus was not some visionary who set out to prove, as is commonly and fallaciously believed, that the Earth was round, so his voyages can’t be boiled down to some great scientific achievement for all mankind.
He didn’t even know he had found a new continent, believing until his dying day that he had landed off the coast of Asia. This then begs the question of what special significance Columbus’ specific journey contained, if any, especially since he was far from the first person to set foot in the so-called “New World.”
By this, I refer not to the Norse explorers like Leif Erickson who sailed to North America some 400 years before Columbus (a fun bit of trivia that misses the point of Columbus’s triviality to US history entirely) but to the millions of indigenous people that already inhabited the Americas when Columbus and his successors arrived.
Most of the arguments against the celebration of Columbus Day are hinged on the brutality these Native Americans were subjected to at the hands of European explorers. Treated little better than animals, the natives were enslaved and put to work under grossly inhospitable conditions, and the preservation of their lives was given little to no regard.
Certain nations, including the Arawak people of Hispaniola, faced total genocide, perhaps not from the orders of Columbus himself, but certainly as a result of the oppressive policies instituted by the colonies that were established on Columbus’s expeditions. He might have been the first to bring European culture across the Atlantic, but in doing so he destroyed countless indigenous others.
Lest anyone accuse me of being too quick to judge the past using modern standards of morality, I should be clear that I don’t hold Columbus to be some paradigm of evil along with men like Hitler or Stalin. He was, above all, a product of his time.
But now that 500 years have passed, perhaps it is time to consider that commemorating certain things from that time might be in bad taste.