History is rarely black and white

One of the most obvious targets of multiculturalism over the past 40 years has been a reinterpretation of Columbus’ voyage to the New World.  Where Americans in the early history of our nation learned the rhyme “In the year of our Lord 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” today’s progressives take issue with every part of that statement.  Their reinterpretation might run something like “In 1492 of the Common Era, Columbus unleashed all the New World’s terror.”

Columbus was neither saint nor monster.  It’s a symptom of the culture wars we live in that people expect to subscribe solely to one of the two views above.  Perhaps only a descendant of both Christopher Columbus and Montezuma II can truly appreciate the mixed bag of results from that fateful voyage of discovery:

History has some truly evil people. Columbus is certainly not one of them. Most often, history is not made up of perfect people and evil ones, but of complex people who must be understood in context.

What is happening at the hands of Columbus’ detractors is political, not historical. As his direct descendant and namesake, I should know.

Two cultures meeting for the first time in 1492 was no easy thing, but blaming Columbus for everything that went wrong hides the truth about him and about those who followed him. It also obscures the great things that the countries of the American hemisphere have accomplished.

What is lacking in the anti-Columbus narrative is any sense of history or of nuance…

Those who now question Columbus conveniently ignore the fact that slavery, cannibalism, warfare and even human sacrifice all existed in the Americas before he even sailed.

The modern Columbus points out that today’s generation has a difficult time understanding how religious faith permeated European society in the early 1500s.  Thus it is difficult for the modern “don’t judge” generation to understand the reaction of Europeans to seeing towers of skulls adorning Aztec architecture, or the bloody sacrifice of scores of natives by Aztec priests.  There was no sense of moral relativism at that time — or for centuries afterwards.  What the natives were doing was simply wrong by the most basic understanding of the Spaniards’ moral foundations.  So “civilizing” natives became a driving force in colonialization — as well as a rationalization for cruel behavior on the part of some Europeans, who took it as a license to abuse the “savages.”

This rationalization for abuses is rightly criticized today.  But it leads frequently to another error: assuming that the abuse of the natives means that their culture was somehow more noble than that of their sometime European tormentors.  This overreaction leads some today to whitewash the history of the precolumbian Americas. It’s not hard to detect this at work in the arts, when a prominent Hollywood production can be entitled “1492: Conquest of Paradise.”

Despite Disney’s Pocahontas singing about painting with “the colors of the wind” or the obvious parallels to the native experince in blockbusters like Avatar, the New World of 1492 was not some sort of New Age pantheistic utopia.  Such things simply don’t exist on earth.  Only the rejection of the Christian worldview (which sees all of creation as fallen and flawed — even the Western Civilization that was once known as Christendom) can lead to such a romanticization of indigenous life.  Yes, the arrival of the Europeans meant much of that way of life was lost.  But unless we’re arguing for a return of human sacrifice to one-up the current revival of tattoos, it’s hard to see that as a bad thing.

The truly sad thing is that so many of those today who focus on what was lost take little to no time to think about what was gained as well.  Representative government was unknown in the Americas before the Europeans arrived —  and it further developed and prospered in the incubator of the New World.  Even the poorest in the hemisphere today largely enjoy a standard of living higher than that of their ancestors (though you wouldn’t know that by the rhetoric of the Marxist-inspired Bolivarists who have wrecked Venezuela without any help from Columbus). By focusing on the admitted excesses of the post-1492 story, the tale of the very progress the progressives claim to seek is lost. Instead, grievances are nursed and divisions maintained.

Who benefits from that?

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