It seems only fitting that one of our most fucked-up days as a nation (the second 2016 presidential debate) directly proceeded one of our other most fucked-up days as a nation (Columbus Day).
Just in case you need a reminder, 1492 set the stage for the mass genocide of Native Americans and indigenous peoples throughout the so-called “New World.” And although Columbus wasn’t directly responsible for the atrocities that would follow over the next 500 years (he died, for example, well before the Dakota Pipeline became an issue), there’s a reason why many activists and other learned folk have begun boycotting Columbus Day, citing a long list of grievances committed in the name of God, glory, the Catholic Church, Manifest Destiny a few hundred years later and of course the all-encompassing “progress.”
What is lesser known about Columbus Day, however, is how the holiday came to be. And, perhaps more importantly, why.
It didn’t start in 1492. Or 1592. No, it took a few hundred years for White Anglo-Saxon protestants to firm up their hold on the New World and to begin flexing their hegemonic muscles: speak English, don’t apply if you’re Irish, lose those hard-to-pronounce names at Ellis Island, and for goodness sakes, if you must immigrate to the United States, please have to decency not to be Catholic.
Ignore the fact that we’ve been selling ourselves as the land of religious freedom for centuries.
Ignore the fact that our Pilgrim forefathers were being persecuted for their beliefs and that’s why they had to come.
And ignore the fact that this, like so much of what we’ve been taught about our own history, isn’t even true. The Pilgrims had already found religious freedom when they left the UK for mainland Europe; what they didn’t find was economic prosperity.
But of course we can’t say this because if it turns out that our founding fathers were ECONOMIC MIGRANTS, the prevailing narrative of our entire country would come crashing down. We’d have to be tolerant of OTHER economic migrants (the so-called “murderers” and “rapists,” and “Islamic terrorists”) and we really don’t want to do that now, do we?
No. Perish the thought. So let’s stick with the story of religious freedom and dress it up with a turkey, some cranberry sauce and another good ol’ American myth about cross-cultural exchange and call it the First Thanksgiving.
(Which, by the way, also did not happen.)
It was into this mess of xenophobia and anti-Catholic sentiment that Columbus Day was born. Although there was nothing even remotely easy about the delivery. Italian Catholics had to fight, like so many immigrant groups before them, for their piece of the American dream and when they thought they’d found, in the figure of their 15th-century compatriot, a symbol that would secure their place in the proverbial melting pot, the US came down with a case of Leif Erikson fever. Because those WASPs didn’t want to be indebted to that swarthy Italian, Christopher Columbus. No, they wanted to trace their roots to a white man—a Nordic man.
(You can read more about this in a fantastic article by Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic.)
So what does Columbus Day and its history have to do with last night’s debate?
Well, this might be a bit hyperbolic of me for ten o’clock in the morning but I’d say we’re fighting for the very soul of our nation at this point.
And while it’s easy to get distracted by the memes, the witty tweets and the Presidential Debate drinking games, we’re losing sight of the fact that we’ve become the laughing stock of the world, and with good reason.
We’re playing debate Bingo and doing shots every time Trump says “Chi-na!” because it’s easier than considering the fact that we’re headed for cataclysmic climate change. That over 800 people in Haiti have just lost their lives. That each of the last 15 months has been the hottest on record.
That our Supreme Court is locked in a standstill because party loyalty and obstructionism have become more important that governance and, guess what: it’s the same in Congress.
That we’re still the most incarcerated nation on earth.
That so many black men have been killed by police that we find ourselves saying, “Wait, I thought his name was ‘Terrence’ this time. Hold on. You mean there’s been ANOTHER ONE???”
We can’t even talk about race and the concept of human decency and you know, showing concern for the feelings of others, has been hijacked as “political correctness” and somehow denounced as a bad thing that “liberals” do.
And then we wonder why we’ve got a grown man pacing around a debate stage interrupting every five seconds and threatening to jail his opponent.
We talk of winners and losers and the pundits go to town with their bullshit but the real losers here are the young people in this country, who are growing up to think that this nonsense is normal.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to stand up in front of a classroom of newly-minted 18 year olds and remind them to turn in their voter registration? So that they can cast their ballot?? In this election???
I don’t blame my students for the blank looks. I don’t blame them for rolling their eyes. I tell them I don’t like either candidate, that I can’t wait for this election cycle to be over either. I mention the importance of down-ballot elections, of exercising the rights that so many people before them didn’t have—anything that might convince them to fill out the forms and show up in November.
But if they don’t vote, I don’t blame them. We’re a nation that created a holiday to honor Columbus in order to compensate for anti-immigrant sentiment. And we haven’t learned a damn thing since then.