A Columbian Exchange
CHARACTER VIEWS ARE NOT NECESSARILY AUTHOR VIEWS
Adraste: Happy Indigenous People’s Day!
Beroe: Happy Columbus Day!
Adraste: …okay, surely we can both sketch out the form of the argument we’re about to have. Genocide, political correctness, moral progress, trying to destroy cherished American traditions, etc, etc, would you like to just pretend we hit all of the usual beats, rather than actually doing it?
Beroe: Does “Columbus Day was originally intended as a woke holiday celebrating marginalized groups; President Benjamin Harrison established it in 1892 after an anti-Italian pogrom in order to highlight the positive role of Italians in American history” count as one of the usual beats by this point?
Adraste: I would have to say that it does.
Beroe: What about “Indigenous People’s Day is offensive because indigenous peoples were frequently involved in slavery and genocide”?
Adraste: I’m not sure I’ve heard that particular argument before.
Beroe: But surely you can sketch it out. Many indigenous peoples practiced forms of hereditary slavery, usually of war captives from other tribes. Some of them tortured slaves pretty atrociously; others ceremonially killed them as a spectacular show of wealth. There’s genetic and archaeological evidence of entire lost native tribes, most likely massacred by more warlike ones long before European contact. Some historians think that the Aztecs may have ritually murdered between 0.1% and 1% of their empire’s population every year, although as always other historians disagree. I refuse to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, because I think we need to question holidays dedicated to mass murderers even when they’re “traditional” or “help connect people to their history”.
Adraste: Very droll, I’m glad I let you present that one.
Beroe: See, that’s what everyone says. “Very droll”, “so galaxy-brained”. It seems like people should be more concerned that they’re asserting a principle - “we shouldn’t be allowed to have holidays devoted to genocidal murderers even if they’re traditional and people really like them” - and then immediately in the same breath violating that principle. Doesn’t that bother you?
Adraste: I don’t think the Native Americans were as much of a negative moral outlier among groups as Columbus was among individuals.
Beroe: No, and I’m sure you draw the line for “too evil to observe a holiday celebrating” right in the most convenient part of the space between them.
Adraste: Maybe? I’m not sure I think about it in quite those terms. To me it just feels like your objection is an annoying motivated fake argument that you’re coming up with to mock Indigenous People’s Day because you don’t want to celebrate it, rather than genuine concern that it’s offensive to the descendants of the Aztecs’ victims. Or are you really worried that if we normalize the Aztecs’ misdeeds, then the youth might start sacrificing people with obsidian daggers on top of giant pyramids?
Beroe: There’s a saying “the sovereign is he who sets the null hypothesis”. But I would add that “the sovereign is he who decides which arguments are too galaxy-brained and annoying to take seriously”. A hundred years ago, when everyone wanted to honor the Italians, it would have been galaxy-brained and annoying to object to Columbus Day. People would have accused you of just wanting an excuse for your anti-Italian bigotry. It’s not like it’s going to normalize the youth taking over the West Indies and enslaving the local population!
Adraste: Maybe those people would have been right! Maybe the point of holidays is to teach people lessons, and which holidays are good or bad depends on what lessons need to be taught. If the big conflict in society is about whether or not to accept Italians, and nobody is thinking about Native Americans either way, then maybe it’s correct to honor a famous Italian, so as to emphasize our support for Italians’ rights. And a hundred years later, when nobody worries about Italians anymore, but lots of people worry about Native Americans, then honoring an Italian who killed lots of Native Americans sends the wrong message, and so we deprecate the pro-Italian holiday in favor of a pro-Native-American one. In the very unlikely chance that, a hundred years from now, the descendants of Aztecs are powerful and privileged, but the descendants of their sacrificial victims are marginalized and there’s a debate about whether or not to accept them - then we should scrap or re-work Indigenous People’s Day to emphasize that we support the victims’ descendants. Until and unless that happens, why bother?
Beroe: Allow me to try a hostile rephrasing of your point. There is no such thing as genuine heroism worth celebrating, or traditions worth keeping - only raw power. Whenever we need a group to join the left-wing coalition, we’ll signal allegiance to them by celebrating their ancestors and demonizing their enemies, regardless of who was in the right. If we stop needing their votes, or they start voting conservative, we’ll demonize their ancestors and celebrate their enemies instead, again regardless of whether this involves active lionization of evil. Do you think that’s substantially different from what you’re saying?
Adraste: You changed “society is preventing pogroms against a marginalized group” to “left-wingers are cynically milking people for their votes”, so yes, I would say it is substantially different.
Beroe: Okay, okay, I admit that was indeed an extraordinarily hostile rephrasing. Maybe it’s not exactly the same as what you said. Maybe it’s more - the way that the idealistic thing you said will inevitably get implemented in real life?
Adraste: And you’re not being idealistic with your argument that we should never celebrate any holiday for anyone who has ever been associated with bad things? Except for Columbus, an exception you still haven’t even slightly explained?
Beroe: Oh, that’s easy. Christopher Columbus did nothing wrong.
Adraste: What? I thought we agreed we could skip the basics - genocide, rape, slavery, torture.
Beroe: No! Cristobal Colon did all those things. Christopher Columbus did nothing wrong.
Adraste: They’re the same person. The Spanish name vs. the Anglicized Latin name.
Beroe: The relationship between Cristobal Colon and Christopher Columbus is the same as the relationship between St. Nicholas of Myra and Santa Claus. St. Nicholas of Myra is a historical figure who lived in 4th century Anatolia. He may or may not have done bad things like physically attack people who he disagreed with at church councils. But Santa Claus is a jolly old man who lives at the North Pole and spreads holiday cheer. In the same way, Cristobal Colon is a historical figure responsible for many serious crimes. But Christopher Columbus is a brave explorer who set forth across the ocean sea with only three tiny ships, despite the risk that he might fall off the edge of the world -
Adraste: Nobody actually thought the world was flat in 1492.
Beroe: Reindeer can’t actually fly.
Adraste: So you're saying we’ve created a mythical version of Christopher Columbus who did good things but not bad things, and we’re celebrating that myth, and not the real, flawed historical figure?
Adraste: I think in order for me to accept this, I would need for Columbus the mythical figure to be more clearly differentiated from Columbus the historical reality. Let him fly around the world on his magic caravel on Columbus Day Eve, visiting all the little children. And if they’re nice children who listen to their parents, he brings them gold and spices; but if they disobey, he invades their house, murders their family, and forces them into slavery on his plantations. That would be a mythical figure. Absent something transparently fantastic like that, I think you’re just scheming up a clever way to avoid historical accountability. Nazis can hold rallies hailing Hitler, and when you challenge them, they can claim they’re talking about a mythical Hitler who, mythologically, did good things but not bad things.
Beroe: And that claim would be either true or false! If none of those Nazis showed the slightest inclination to dislike Jews, I would believe it was true. But this doesn’t seem true of real Nazis - they love their version of Hitler for exactly the same reasons we hate ours. I would rather use the example of Genghis Khan, who really is beloved in Mongolia. He did kill millions of people, but the Mongols are celebrating him for fine, pro-human reasons like bravery and tactical brilliance - so we let it pass.
Adraste: And in this schema, the reasons for celebrating Columbus are “pro-human”?
Beroe: Yes! Columbus is the brave explorer who set forth across the ocean sea with only three tiny ships, despite the risk that he might fall off the edge of the world. He represents the human urge for discovery, to go forth from safe and settled lands to seek out new horizons. And he’s part of our history. For a while the poets called America itself “Columbia”, and since then we’ve used the name for our national capital district, two of our state capitals, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, an Ivy League university, three spacecraft, and the mythical goddess of American democracy - not to even mention the Columbian Exposition, revolutionary Gran Colombia, (beautiful) British Columbia, and the modern country of Colombia. Columbus is a part of ourselves - the part that leaves behind the comfortable Old World for something new and exciting.
Adraste: Then isn’t it an insult to this mythical Columbus to turn him into a figurehead for stale tradition? To say oh, yes, he was a bad person who violated everything we believe in, but we have to stick with him because that was what our forefathers did? Isn’t that the opposite of leaving behind the settled shores of the comfortable Old World seeking bold new progress? I’m not completely ignorant of the old American tradition of lionizing the early explorers and colonists. But I think it was James Russell Lowell who wrote about them as:
They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past's;
But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free,
Hoarding it in moldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee
The rude grasp of that great Impulse which drove them across the sea.
Do you deny that’s what you’re doing here?
Beroe: Clever! Turning my own words against me! Maybe if I believed that we could create an even better explorer holiday - one honoring Neil Armstrong, maybe - I could be convinced to part with Columbus Day - although I worry that Armstrong wouldn’t have quite the same oomph, nothing he did really affected us. But in fact we’re not even trying to do that. We’ve replaced it with this complete milquetoast Indigenous People’s Day, which isn’t even pretending to be anything other than an anti-holiday to neutralize Columbus Day itself. There is no such thing as a natural grassroots Indigenous People’s Day celebration. It exists only to harass and humiliate people observing the old rites - so that busybodies can say “Actually, you should be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead.”
Adraste: Is that so bad? All of our best holidays have begun as anti-holidays to neutralize older rites. Jesus was born in the spring; they moved Christmas to December to neutralize the pagan Solstice celebration. Easter got its name because it neutralized the rites of the spring goddess Eostre. Hanukkah was originally a minor celebration of a third-tier Bible story; American Jews bumped it up several notches of importance in order to neutralize Christmas. Labor Day was invented to screw up Communists’ attempts to coordinate around May Day as a labor protest holiday. This isn’t something modern liberals invented. It’s a tradition as old as the West. Give anti-holidays enough time and they become proper celebrations; in a hundred years, your descendants will be horrified at the thought of missing an Indigenous Peoples’ Day observance!
Beroe: I’m sorry, you may be right about the history, but Indigenous Peoples’ Day is just not a very good holiday. Indigenous Peoples are just too vague and diverse to have any real attachment to them. What are we even supposed to be celebrating? It’s not that Indigenous Peoples didn’t have any good qualities - maybe some of them lived in harmony with nature or something, and some had surprisingly egalitarian societies. I hear the Aztecs had amazing urban planning, and the Incas did some very neat things with rope bridges and knots. But there was no good quality that all of them had as a group. And even if there was, we wouldn’t be allowed to celebrate it, because that would be a stereotype. I can imagine a world in which Benjamin Harrison had declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day back in 1892, and people celebrated by wearing feathered headdresses and attending pow-wows and eating cornbread, and that might have eventually evolved into a good holiday. But absent a 180 degree shift in the culture, we obviously aren’t going to get that now. In the real world, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is observed by feeling vaguely guilty, making a big show of not celebrating Columbus Day, and making sure not to do anything fun or cultural related to Indigenous Peoples in any way, lest it offend someone.
Adraste: Columbus Day isn’t exactly the world’s most exciting party either.
Beroe: Granted. But at least 1892 was before we had so much physical technology that we let all our social technology atrophy away - and so Benjamin Harrison had the good sense to declare Columbus Day rather than Italian American Heritage Recognition Week. At least we got a real historical figure who we can have feelings about.
Adraste: So what, you’d prefer Sacagawea Day?
Beroe: Oh God, you’re really making this embarrassing for me, aren’t you? Yes, I suppose I would prefer Sacagawea Day to Indigenous People’s Day. But why not Sitting Bull Day? Yes, yes, I know, he murdered a few civilians, but that was the historical Thathanka Iyotake. The mythical Sitting Bull can easily be rehabilitated! And he has a sort of extra indefinable cool.
Coria: Sorry, can I interrupt?
Adraste: Who are you?
Coria: I’m getting written into this dialogue because the author found it concerning that one character is promoting “holidays are about destroying other tribes’ holidays to score political points” and the other is promoting “holidays are about whitewashing genocides”, without anyone holding the principled position of “let’s just figure out what the optimal number of holidays is, determine the greatest historical figures based on some weighted combination of goodness and importance, and then assign those holidays to those historical figures in order according to some proper technocratic High Modernist system.”
Adraste: Are you crazy?
Coria: I realize it’s a big ask. It just seemed sort of dishonest or small-minded to not even mention it as a possibility. There are plenty of lists of the greatest historical figures. Taking this one, selecting for only Americans or America-related people, and removing people too similar to each other, we get Columbus, Einstein, Edison, Washington, MLK, Disney, Franklin, Jonas Salk, Margaret Sanger, Susan B Anthony, and Louis Armstrong. We could combine it with this list of people who saved the most lives, of which the Americans are Maurice Hilleman, Henrietta Lacks, Jonas Salk, and Norman Borlaug - I think a good consensus list for both influential and moral might replace one of Columbus, Sanger or Franklin with Borlaug, and keep the rest. That would give us eleven honorees - enough for one holiday a month, leaving room for Christmas.
Adraste: I don’t think a list of algorithmically-determined honorees without any Hispanics or Natives really takes into account how politics works these days.
Beroe: And I don’t think that a Year Zero attempt to reinvent holidays from first principles takes into account how culture works, ever.
Coria: As I said, I didn’t expect you to be interested. I’ll just be standing over here in the corner in case you decide you like truth and goodness.
Adraste: I do think Coria’s idea suggests an important point. If we imagine ourselves reinventing the concept of holidays from the ground up, I don’t think our plan would include bringing in Columbus, rehabilitating him from a mass murderer to a mythical explorer, and then celebrating him every October . That means that continuing to do so doesn’t pass a reversal test for status quo bias.
Beroe: Granted. If your argument is that my position depends on something like nostalgia or tradition, I accept it. I am trying to argue that celebrating Columbus Day is permissible and justifiable, not arguing that it is an optimal holiday for some hypothetical culture with no previous history.
Adraste: Isn’t there an aspect of selfishness in forcing future generations to do things you remember fondly, just to indulge your nostalgia? If we rip off the band-aid now, then future generations won’t have any memories of Columbus Day, and the problem won’t come up.
Beroe: Let me answer your question with a question: suppose we were to replace Christmas with another holiday that tested equally well in focus groups. It had just as much potential for holiday specials, provided just as much of an excuse to get together with family, even had delightful mythological characters who, starting ex nihilo, would have just as much appeal as Santa. Would you feel like something had been lost?
Adraste: I admit it would make me sad. I agree we shouldn’t do it. But that’s because there’s no reason to do it. It would make old geezers like us sad, with no compensatory advantages. Getting rid of Columbus Day is much less laborious - people have many fewer associations with it - and does have compensatory advantages. So even though there is a cost in making you sad that your children will celebrate different holidays than you celebrated as a child, it’s probably worth it. And even if every hundred years or so we adjust holidays so that morally fraught ones are out and ones that celebrate new groups who it’s politically important to celebrate are in, I think that’s a worthwhile sacrifice.
Beroe: And I say it isn’t, and you’ll end up without myths, without heroes, and without enjoyable festivals. You’ll get occasional long weekends whenever the government orders you to celebrate Seasonal Farm Workers Suffering From Fatphobia Day or whatever, but good luck keeping anything that might be called a real national culture.
Coria: Why are you two even still holding this debate? You know you’re never going to resolve this.
Adraste: Why, so that the next time we get in a fight about this and say “Can we pretend that we hit all the usual beats and skip to novel arguments?” we’ll be able to skip over more things!
Beroe: Exactly! We may never come to an agreement, but next time we’ll be able to explore even more exotic and complicated arguments. That’s what philosophical progress is!
A Columbian Exchange