This place matters

This place matters

Monday, October 11, 2010

Revisionism?

When I was a kid, I had these neighbors who had defected from the Ukraine. They were the sweetest couple. She spoke almost no English but would sometimes go to her porch when we were playing outside and toss us little toys. Her husband made wood carvings of birds, spent most of every day in the garden, and fed every critter who wandered near his house (including the skunks, sadly). He died a month after she did, in his garden.
Tony used to say that his life had a bad part and a good part, and the good part was America. He was the most patriotic man I think I've ever known - the kind, loving kind of patriot who truly believes that America had the power to be the greatest force for good on earth.
Tony and his wife didn't own a TV. When Watergate broke, they threw away the TV. I always saw that as a gesture of unconditional love, rather than one of sticking one's head in the ground; I still see the choice as sweet and touching, although it's probably not a great strategy for most Americans. They were old, though, and if they wanted to believe the best of their nation by sticking their heads in the ground, power to 'em.
So you've probably figured out that where I'm going with this is to the man we honor today, one Christopher Columbus. And by now we've all heard that conquering the New World and stealing the blah blah blah we're bad. Okay, sure, the Europeans who came to America did awful things, but can we really blame Columbus himself? Okay, so Columbus writes this lovely description in his log* of the folks that they found in the new world - their generosity, their physical beauty, and their peacefulness. Aww. And the way his log abruptly changes after that is almost comic book super-villain worthy: 
They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features... They do not bear arms and do not know them... they have no iron... They would make fine servants... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and do whatever we want.
How weird is that? History, and Columbus himself, tell us that Columbus cheerfully rounded up and enslaved the people they found, not to do regular old manual labor, but to carry them around as if they were horses, or to run relays while carrying their masters in hammocks. One first-hand account says that these first settlers brought by Columbus would slice Indians apart to test their blades, or behead their children because, you know, it was fun. 
Nobody knows quite how many natives greeted Columbus and his men, but we're talking somewhere between one and eight million. After Columbus and his men had been around for about 14 years, there were as few as 60,000 natives left on the island. Considering they didn't have tanks or machine guns or gas chambers, they made the Nazis look like pansies.
It's so weird that we still have a day honoring the man, so weird that people will get so worked up over keeping this day, when he, personally, was a gleeful participant in one of the most effective genocides in history. It kind of makes me want to throw out all the history books and go carve some birds.

As quoted in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

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