Multicultural Columbus


A week has now passed since America observed its latest round of Columbus Day activities­­e.g., the usual Italian American-led parades and Native American-led protests­­and in that regard things were no different in my town, Syracuse, New York, which dutifully featured both. But many folks seemed pleasantly surprised this year when a pretty young lady of Vietnamese descent, Myphuong Phan, was crowned Miss Columbus Day. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the committee who selected Phan for the honors did so because “Columbus discovered America for everyone.”

Christopher Columbus: he’s not just for Italians anymore! Many Americans, conservatives and liberals alike, would doubtless applaud this multicultural take on the controversial explorer; and some might even conclude that our colorfully adorned Miss Columbus Day brought an additional meaning to the day’s festivities, namely another welcomed step away from that grisly legacy of ambivalence known as the Vietnam War. Surely, if Columbus discovered America for Miss Phan as much as anyone else, there’s a bit less incentive to worry about old unpleasantries like napalm or My Lai.

Of course that wouldn’t change the fact that the Vietnam War was waged in precisely the same imperialist spirit that Christopher Columbus represents, whether we call it stopping the spread of communism, opening up new markets, or discovering the New World. In the cases of both Vietnam and the Americas­­and here we can quietly mention Iraq as well­­the sovereignty and intelligence of people who inhabited invaded lands was considered a moot point by outsiders who presumed to know best and acted accordingly. In such cases, you can be sure that the deaths of natives will always far exceed those of the invaders, and native life will inevitably be made more difficult in the aftermath.

To wit, the American phase (1965-73) of the Second Indochina War (1960-75) killed some 1,700,000 natives, as well as 58,000 U.S. military personnel. Bathed in the blood of imperialism, the entire war destroyed 3,500,000 lives. So far the Iraq War has killed between 26,000 and 30,000 civilian Iraqis, according to the conservative estimates of Iraq Body Count, although the British medical journal The Lancet reported a year ago that the war had already caused a possible 100,000 “excess deaths.” Such numbers are getting worse; Robert Fisk recently reported that 1,100 Iraqi civilians died in Baghdad alone last July. The US military death toll is rapidly approaching 2,000, of which a full quarter has been reservists, and that latter statistic is multiplying: in August and September of this year, a full 56% of the US military dead have been reservists.

As for the death toll legacy of our old friend Columbus, for years demographers have argued over how to estimate the pre-Columbian Native population and its subsequent reduction, with informed guesses ranging anywhere from 8 to 100 million Indians killed as a result of Columbus’s “discovery.” Personally, I’ve always been partial to geographer William Denevan’s reasonable 1976 “consensus count” of 54,000,000 dead Indians, but that’s probably because I’m a moderate. Whether attributed to unlivable conditions of life caused by colonialism, or to outright genocidal military campaigns, the fact is these obscene numbers would not exist were it not for the man Americans celebrate each October. Nor would our more current and depressing array of statistics that consistently rank today’s Indians at the very bottom of every single social indicator of well being, from health, to education, to crime, economy, and more.

So I suppose I’m not feeling uplifted by Syracuse’s multicultural take on Columbus, no matter how much I support efforts by the Vietnamese-American community to become more accepted in their new country (and I do appreciate that impulse). To me, this joint celebration of old Chris on the one hand, and today’s fascination with “diversity” on the other, is neither more nor less than a symptom of the cultural logic of Empire: namely, the New World Order’s desire to have everyone wear their ethnic costumes to global capitalism’s grand ball.

Global imperialism, whether in the form of yesteryear’s colonialisms or more recent blood-for-oil initiatives pursued by US-led “coalitions,” is always done in the service of the global market. Today’s world elites who benefit from this market­­it’s not just Americans­­are far removed from those stodgy old Mr. Potter types who used to frown upon cultures that weren’t Eurocentric enough. To the contrary! Global capitalism knows full well that culture and ethnicity make great “niche markets,” so cultural differences have become commodities like any other. In this context, ethnic groups from Vietnamese to Native Americans have been transformed from subaltern “savages” into so many new producers and consumers in the global marketplace.

Provided, of course, that they are invited to attend the ball. For those not favorably situated to participate in the global market­­i.e., those unlucky millions who presently lack use value for whatever historical reason, for instance the vast majority of Native Americans living on reservations today­­you can be certain that their cultures will continue to be thoroughly condemned: as “cultures of dependency,” “cultures of poverty,” and so on. But there is nothing inherent in the world market today, or the global culture it produces, that requires ethnic groups to check their ethnicities at the door­­just their poverty, their complaints, their progressive political movements, and most definitely their militant resistance or even a hint of it.

So in addition to the crowning of young Phan, the traditional Vietnamese dragon that was featured in Syracuse’s Columbus Day parade last week was a perfectly acceptable way of participating in­­and celebrating­­global imperialism, as well as another sign of America’s commitment to its cultural diversity. Indeed, in this instance the two are the precisely same thing.

Progressives should always resist the symbol of Columbus, no matter how colorful the clothing folks might try to put on him. Not only because of what Columbus means as a symbol­­namely, the origin of so much suffering and death for imperialism’s victims, be they Native Americans to Vietnamese to Iraqis­­but even more so because of what Columbus Day does to the people who celebrate it.

Columbus Day is an act of public memory, a “commemoration,” which my dictionary defines as a “ceremony to honor the memory of someone or something.” It’s a ceremony. That means the commemoration of Columbus has, as all ceremonies do, something powerful built into it, some sort of creative component that changes the world, or at least the people doing the ceremony. Just as the ceremony of marriage creates a family, or the ceremony of bar mitzvah creates a man, the ceremony of commemoration is similarly intended to create something new that didn’t exist before.

What do commemorations create? The identity of a people. This holds true no matter what the specific context or given people doing the commemorating. When Cherokees commemorate the Trail of Tears, they leave the day feeling very Cherokee. When Christians commemorate the resurrection of Christ, they not only solidify their identities as Christians but actually become the “Body of Christ.” It’s not even the case that peoples have to be large, recognized, historical groups; to the contrary, where two or more are gathered, it seems, identity can be present. (Think about family funerals.) All that’s required is some commemoration of a common past.

Commemorations work by compelling people to remember this past, first by asserting that there is indeed something that’s “common” to it­­which isn’t always easy­­and second by reflecting upon how it led to our current present. But commemorations don’t stop with reflection on the past; if they did, we would just call it studying history. Commemorations are different because they insist that we identify with what is remembered, deeply and emotionally, and hence come to feel akin to others who supposedly feel the same way we do. In this heartfelt manner, we are transformed into a particular people, an “us.”

What sort of identities do national commemorations create? Why, national ones of course. Through commemorative ceremonies authorized by the United States of America, disparate groups of people, be they Vietnamese, Italian, or Cherokee in origin, are compelled to solidify their common identity as national citizens, that is, as Americans. This is how a recent Vietnamese immigrant, not to mention a Cherokee, can come to identify with Columbus, even though more honest assessments of the past would find less common ground between America and its imperial victims than violent opposition.

Of key importance to this process of making national identity is the presence of particular values. That is, the identity formed through the act of remembering is inseparable from the values drawn from historical example. For instance, each Fourth of July Americans assemble to reflect on the independence gained long ago through an act of militant rebellion waged in the name of liberty, freedom, and equality: values which are then firmly linked to American identity. Public memory creates a common identity defined in large measure by this reverent acquisition of certain values­­they’re absolutely crucial­­which explains the proliferation of emotional, value-laden speeches at commemorative events.

None of this is meant to imply that national commemorations are absolutely effective, working on everyone, everywhere, every single time. No, it’s still very much the case that the Cherokee remember the Trail of Tears and view Columbus Day accordingly. But these ceremonies are supposed to work this way, and they are very often successful, especially in the arenas of public perception: mass media, writing, school curricula, and other sites where commemorations are disseminated as a kind of pedagogical orthodoxy.

So our dangerous global age seems as good a time as any to ask new questions of national commemorations like Columbus Day. For one, what kind of national identity are we trying to create for ourselves by celebrating this man? For another, what values are we deeming so important from the example of his life that we wish them for our own?

The identity that’s created through Columbus’s commemoration is not an American one so much as that of the global imperialist. Columbus was obviously not an American himself but a slave-trading explorer who saw all non-Europeans (and a good many Europeans beneath his own class position) as lesser beings given to people like him for exploitation by the grace of God. As for values, to the extent that American identity in, say, its Jeffersonian ideal, might be tied to enlightened values like freedom, liberty, and equality, to what values would a Columbian imperialist identity be linked? Discovery, even though discovered lands somehow always seem to be occupied? White supremacy, by virtue of an idea called “civilization” that posited as “savage” all non-whites? How about male dominance? Slavery? Land theft? Genocide?

I don’t believe that most Americans want to be global imperialists who value things like genocide and slavery, yet history proves time and again that they will allow their government to act in their name in precisely these ways. Why? One reason is certainly because their identities and values are so often, and so powerfully, provided to them through national celebrations­­yes, sometimes the obnoxious kind embodied by Orwell’s “hate week” or the programming on Fox News, but more often through simple, local, and more polite observations of national commemorations like Columbus Day.

What these established identities and values do to the people who receive and then hold them, however unwittingly, is make them complicit in activities they would otherwise be loathe to perform themselves. Each October Columbus Day turns Americans into ruthless imperialists, whether they know it or not, and for that reason alone the annual commemoration seems required to culturally justify what is relentlessly happening in our name: imperialism, colonialism, exploitation, marginalization, and mass death.

So it seems more than just a passing fancy for anyone who detests imperialism to appreciate Indian protestations of Columbus Day as the moral objection of a group whose history is elided in its celebration and support efforts to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day. A national commemoration like the latter would obviously invoke a different set of identities and values for Americans to assume, as well as produce new festivals and initiate important dialogues. Indigenous People’s Day would flip the script of Multicultural Columbus: that is, rather than globalizing the very embodiment of imperialism, it would give progressive internationalism a distinctly American face.

This might also be a good time for progressives to revisit the political potentials of national commemorations in general, since many of them­­for example, Labor Day, Earth Day, and especially Martin Luther King Day­­invoke identities and values that we revere.

Commemorations are important, but why are so many progressive ones depressing candlelight vigils? Better to capture the festive energy of large antiwar demonstrations, or for that matter small Fourth of July parades, if we wish to use the powerful energy of commemorative ceremonies in ways that might actually benefit us, not to mention the world, for a notable change.

SCOTT RICHARD LYONS, A Leech Lake Ojibwe, teaches at Syracuse University.