The recent attacks on historical monuments by the “woke” progressive Philistines, and the New York Times’s “1619 Project” aimed at rewriting America’s history as a racist plot, are just the latest in the left’s long assault on American history. Long before this current iconoclasm, Christopher Columbus has been the arch-villain in the left’s Orwellian revision of American history as peculiarly and irredeemably evil from its birth.
Attacking and demonizing American history predates the current frenzy of revisionism and virtue-signaling, for it is one of the progressive left’s favorite tools for undermining the patriotic solidarity that binds us together and undergirds our political order.
This long assault on America’s founding and exceptionalism has been a weapon of the left for weakening the U.S., its most successful and powerful enemy. The left can never forgive the US for achieving “prosperity, power, the tendency towards uniformity of economic conditions,” as Raymond Aron pointed out in 1957, “by private initiative, by competition rather than State intervention” and the “revolutionary code.” The left has to discredit America’s foundations in order to show that its success has come at too great a price––the institutionalization of racist oppression and inequality that has created “white privilege” and “white supremacism.” What better place to start than with Christopher Columbus, who began the evil colonization of and genocide against the innocent American peoples? And Columbus’s most malign heir has been the United States.
The staleness of these reductive clichés about the European contact with the New World were obvious in 1992 during the quincentennial celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. A “wanted poster” circulated by an indigenous people’s activist group was typical of the rhetoric at the time: “Wanted: Christopher Columbus . . . for grand theft, genocide, racism, initiating the destruction of a culture, rape, torture, and instigating the big lie.” Even then this melodramatic revision of history was stale. In 1925 poet William Carlos Williams had written, “The main islands were thickly populated with a peaceful folk when Christopher Columbus found them. But of the orgy of blood which followed, no man has written. It is the tortured soul of the world.” Since then decrying Columbus and the U.S. has been an annual event. Even The Sopranos in 2002 made the regular Columbus Day protests part of an episode’s plot.
This revisionist, semi-mythic, reductionist view of history has two dimensions. The first is the inveterate evil of the Europeans, and later Americans, who colonized the land and displaced its peaceful inhabitants. From the very beginning, Europeans shoehorned Amerindians into the old Classical Golden Age myth of a simple people living in harmony with nature, with no cities, laws, diseases, private property, or war. As Amerigo Vespucci wrote in 1505, “neither do they have goods of their own, but all things are held in common,” and they “live according to nature.” Sir Walter Raleigh explicitly invoked the Golden Age: “We found the people most gentle, loving, loving, and faithful, void of all guile and treason, such as lived after the manner of the golden age.”
The other side of the coin involved turning the Europeans into evil oppressors committing genocide against the pacifist, nature-loving indigenous peoples, the clichéd plot of hundreds of movies like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and Avatar. These wicked Europeans, as Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in 1992, came from a “dark Other World, a world of sorrow and evil,” whose sole driving force was a “lust for gold” and the “imperative of human domination and control of the natural world” with its attendant “pollution, extermination, cruelty, destruction, and despoliation.”
Today this long tradition of idealizing American Indians as proto-communists and ecologists has made them useful clubs for beating an American capitalist culture that oppresses the innocent “other” and ravages nature with our of “technological hubris,” as Al Gore put it. And idealizing the New World’s indigenes, especially those in North America, has also been an advertisement for collectivist political philosophies like socialism, which promises to restore that lost Golden Age of communal ownership, peace, equality, and “social justice” once enjoyed by America’s first inhabitants.
The reality of life in pre-contact America, of course, was radically different from these politicized myths, just as the promises of Marxism––like Trotsky’s “new man,” a “higher sociological type of superman” who “will become incomparably strong, wiser, more subtle”––were radically different from the nightmare of gulags, torture, man-made famines, and 100 million murdered in the name of communism. The native of the New World were not peaceful, but like tribal bands across the globe were continuously raiding and killing each other, not to mention practicing, again like the ancient Celts or Teutons of the Old World, fiendishly cruel methods of torture. Neither were they natural ecologists, “living lightly on the land,” as today’s ecologists claim. They exploited their environment in order to survive, using fire to shape the landscape to that end, and fire-drives and stampedes of game over cliffs to kill more than they could ever use. Their impact on nature was limited by their small numbers, and by the crudity of their stone-tipped weapons.
In other words, like developing nations today, their first priority was not protecting “mother nature” but exploiting and managing it to ensure their survival. The tragedy of the collision of worlds begun by Columbus’s voyages was not the result of uniquely evil “whites” who invaded and committed genocide against gentle, peace-loving peoples “of color,” but that of human nature and its universal drive to invade, conquer, and appropriate the resources of other. The Oglala Sioux chief Black Hawk recognized this truth that today’s sleek, well-fed idealizers ignore. At the Fort Laramie conference with the U.S. Cavalry in 1851, he justified the Sioux’s rights to the lands south of the Platte River that the U.S. wanted them to vacate: “Those lands once belonged to the Kiowas and the Crows,” Black Hawk said, “but we whipped those nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the land of the Indians.” Like all tribal peoples, the right to possess, exploit, and control territory was based on force, not abstract law. The tragedy for the Indians was that a super-tribe had landed on their shores, one armed with greater numbers, superior weapons, and unfamiliar pathogens that did most of the killing.
If we are to criticize the Europeans, then, it should be based on the fact that they should have known better given their more advanced civilization. What is truly unique about the collision of cultures in the New World is that from the beginning there were Europeans who chastised the violence and cruelty of the explorers and colonizers. In 1511, the Dominican priest Antonio de Montesinos scolded his fellow Spaniards, “You are in mortal sin and live and die in it because of the cruelty and tyranny that you use against these innocent peoples . . . . Are these Indians not Men? Do they not have souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?” So too Pedro de Cieza de León, who wrote, “It is no small sorrow to reflect that we Christians have destroyed so many kingdoms. For wherever Christians have passed, conquering and discovering, it seems as though a fire has consumed everything.” And the most passionate defender of the Indian, Bartolomé de las Casas, instructed priests to deny absolution, the forgiveness of sin, to anybody who abused and owned Indians.
That’s the historical truth that today’s self-loathing Europeans and Americans ignore: the sins of the West have been the sins of a universal human nature. What makes the West exceptional are not those sins, but its self-criticism that acknowledged and condemned them, thus creating the possibility of overcoming them. We should not, like today’s rich, spoiled Westerners, just demonize the West for being more efficient at indulging those human sins because of the dynamic culture and technologies that brought Europeans to the New World and magnified their destructive power. We should also acknowledge the fact that they recognized them as sins that we should struggle to overcome.
But such a mature, realist understanding of history is beyond today’s progressives who, still enthralled by utopian political delusions, reduce non-Western peoples to idealized stereotypes that diminish their complex humanity and historical reality. But Leftist have always been “terrible simplifiers,” as Jacob Burkhardt called all those utopian dreamers promising heaven on earth. Ideas useful for that goal are valuable, despite their lies and distortions, despite the cost in blood and pain from their application––just as we see today, from the corruption of the Federal swamp to the street-thuggery of Antifa.
Demonizing Christopher Columbus and idealizing his victims are such ideas, and continue because they are tools for transforming our country. And history––in all its complexity, mixed motives, failed good intentions, and tragic consequences––is the collateral damage of that project.