If there are necessary sacrifices to be made for human progress, is it not essential to hold to the principle that those to be sacrificed must make the decision themselves? We can all decide to give up something of ours, but do we have the right to throw into the pyre the children of others, or even our own children, for a progress which is not nearly as clear or present as sickness or health, life or death?
– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
Monday marked 523 years since what is believed to be the day that Columbus landed on the shores of the Bahamas. People across the U.S. gathered for parades held in honor of a man who enslaved the natives, chopped off their hands, murdered them, fed their babies to dogs and sold their children into sex slavery. This year, 10 cities across the U.S. instead recognized Indigenous Peoples Day.
The atrocities committed by Columbus are more than enough reason to rename the holiday and, what is more, tell the real story. But the reasons for telling that story extend beyond our profound, unpayable debt to the indigenous community. Whitewashing history obscures the troublesome threads that connect our present with our past. How can we judge the present if our vision is clouded by mystification?
Dona De Sanctis, former deputy executive director of the Order Sons of Italy in America, has said that critics of Columbus Day, and Columbus himself, are “judging a 16th century man by 21st century standards.” While there are many paths to a rebuttal of this argument, I want to question the suggestion that standards for the treatment of “others” have significantly changed over the past several centuries.
That the history and prehistory of the United States are steeped in slavery and murder is no secret, though the unsavoriness of this truth is often subdued by or ignored in favor of the supposed pros – the expansion of “civilization,” “progress” and “enlightened values.” Writing for Capitalism Magazine last October, Michael Berliner claims that Columbus Day is the celebration not just of the man, but of the spread of Western civilization’s values, crystallizing in the birth of America: “Western civilization stands for man at his best. It stands for the values that make human life possible: reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, productive achievement. The values of Western civilization are values for all men; they cut across gender, ethnicity, and geography.”
Columbus’ was an expedition for gold and for saving heretical savages’ souls, not for spreading Berliner’s supposed “values of Western civilization.” While those in the Berliner camp may still find a reason to celebrate good results from bad motives and methods, we should seriously question whether the U.S. has effected such a universalizing of values “that make human life possible.” That so many of our nation’s interventions abroad throughout its history have been conducted more or less explicitly “in the American interest” – that is, in the American economic interest – at the expense of the very lives of others undermines this moral supremacist logic.
American Economic Interests Abroad
Perhaps some of the most poignant examples are the so-called “Banana Wars,” consisting of interventions primarily throughout Central America and the Caribbean between the late 1800’s and the 1930’s. Hundreds of years after Columbus, the Banana Wars mingled the protection of American economic interests and messianic rhetoric of saving savage souls with military violence. Historian John M. Gates estimates that approximately 230,000 Filipinos, mostly civilians, lost their lives from causes related to one of the bloodiest of the wars during that time period. U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a highly active officer in the Banana Wars, described his actions in his speech, “War is a Racket,” thus:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism….I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
The freedom of American markets has long trumped the freedom, and the very lives, of people abroad. No doubt, America has advanced a certain kind of reason and ambition and productivity and achievement – those values that Berliner touts like Western-God’s gift to savage-man. But America’s motives and methods hardly represent “values for all men” that transcend ethnicity or geography. This nation, and the history of its land, are grounded in the process of “othering” – creating disposable castes as scaffolding for expansion and profit. (It should be noted that, while not the focus of this piece, internal disposable castes are also created to fight and die in these wars in the American interest – often comprised largely of the poor or otherwise marginalized.)
In the Name of “Security”
Today much of America’s capitalist spread takes place through rapacious trade agreements that subject those abroad working in export zones to unsafe working conditions, poverty wages and sexual violence. But military force continues to be implemented in the American interest – sometimes under the guise of spreading our specific brand of freedom (today’s secularized iteration of saving savage souls, perhaps), but more often since 9/11, in the interest of “security.” While there is substantial reason to suspect economic interests at work in many of our recent Middle Eastern embroilments, I want to focus here on the common recourse to security interests, which have become profoundly influential among the public and those in power.
The most notable example of this in recent history, though certainly not the only one, is the invasion of Iraq. With the most spurious of evidence that the country posed some vague threat to the U.S., those in favor of war (for whatever reason) were able to convince Congress to authorize the invasion. The idea extending throughout the various tactics of the “War on Terror,” from invasions to drone strikes across the Middle East and Northern Africa, is that Americans are more worthy of protecting against even slight and hypothetical threats than the concrete and actual lives of people abroad. Rather than daring to confront the fact that American foreign policy may be the country’s worst security threat and make changes accordingly to prevent creating more enemies, the U.S. chooses perpetual war to maintain its exceptional status, perhaps only in its own eyes. The result in Iraq, according to recent research by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, is believed to be at least 1 million lives lost – about 5% of the nation’s population – over Saddam Hussein’s non-existent threat to the United States.
The information available on deaths from drone strikes is likewise heartbreaking. A recently released infograph depicting data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism highlights the best information we have concerning drone strikes and casualties in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013; only about 2% of the casualties were high-level targets. No shortage of children and known civilians were killed. The majority of those killed were in the “Other” category – comprised of alleged enemy combatants – the Obama Administration assumes that any male killed in a strike is an enemy combatant in the absence of proof otherwise. What can we expect the data to look like for Yemen, Somalia, Libya and other nations where the U.S. has been terrorizing populations in the name of its own security?
Challenging Exceptionalism and Disposability
Columbus’ legacy is not that of a 16th century man who, operating under the admittedly unfortunate standards of his time, facilitated the spread of freedom and progress to a new world. His legacy is that of a man whose motives and methods – to serve the interests of the Crown by enacting violence upon others – are still echoed in that “new world.” The American interest is more important than the interests, and the very lives, of those unexceptional non-Americans abroad – our new “savages.”
I think changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day is about more than due political correctness, which certainly has its place. When we put those thrown on the pyre for American progress front and center, this challenges the exceptionalist thinking that allowed Columbus to murder and pillage; it challenges the exceptionalist thinking that would diminish his atrocities today; and, importantly, it thrusts to the fore the exceptionalist justifications for violence abroad in the present. Whether in the 16th or 21st century, exceptionalism and disposability go hand in hand. We need new standards by which to judge and act.