A view of Columbus Day: Celebrating the Wrong Italian

James Bennett:

The interesting thing to me was the complete absence of anything representing the United States. This was not a coincidence. Columbus, and the holiday celebrating his landing in the New World, are seen throughout the Spanish-speaking world as having to do primarily with the extension of Spanish-speaking, Catholic civilization to the New World and the creation, through a conflicted encounter, of a new culture. It is, to coin a phrase, the creation of the Hispanosphere that is commemorated. 

Traditionally, the role played by the United States in this narrative is not one of a joint participant, but rather an antagonist. In the narrative of Hispanosphere nationalists, Latin America is Shakespeare’s Ariel, the graceful and sensitive artistic spirit. The United States, or “Gringolandia” as it is sometimes called, is Caliban, the powerful but ugly monster that dominates tragic Ariel. 

Columbus Day in the United States carries an entirely different set of connotations. During the 19th century, Columbus was reinvented by Washington Irving and his successors as a sort of Yankee visionary entrepreneur before his time. His specific roots in time, space, and culture as a Genoese in the service of Spanish monarchs was downplayed; what was celebrated was his seeming prescience and capacity for self-reinvention. 

In fact Columbus did have some such characteristics; entrepreneurism is often a leap into the unknown, and he was neither the first nor the last to set out to seek one thing and discover another, nor to venture on the basis of mistaken calculations and assumptions. There was, it is true, a certain Enron-like quality to his mileage calculations. 

Subsequently, this useful narrative was seized upon and expanded by Catholic immigrant communities eager to demonstrate that Catholicism was not inconsistent with being American. Italian immigrant groups found Columbus a particularly appealing figure; here was an Italian Catholic already elevated to heroic status by the Americans they sought to join. Columbus Day became established as an American holiday, but for reasons and with symbolism quite different from those for which it is celebrated in Latin America.. 

Now, of course, Columbus Day is under attack as a holiday in the United States by the forces of political correctness. This is primarily an effect of the Calvinist Puritan roots of American progressivism. Just as Calvinists believed in the centrality of the depravity of man, with the exception of a miniscule contingent of the Elect of God, their secularized descendants believe in the depravity and cursedness of Western civilization, with their own enlightened selves in the role of the Elect. 

I do not particularly sympathize with the demonization of Columbus Day by the politically correct, although I do not think the injustices suffered by our Siberian-American fellow immigrants should be glossed over. However, I think Columbus Day should be reconsidered as a U.S. holiday for a different reason. I am fundamentally in agreement with the Hispanosphere nationalists on one point: Columbus’s voyage was very specifically the initiation of the contact between Spain and Spanish America. Neither the settlement of Brazil nor of English-speaking North America were direct consequences of Columbus’s voyages, and would probably have happened had Columbus never returned with the news of his landing.