Civil Discourse Now

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Happy "Discovery Day," because "Columbus Day" is as appropriate as the Washington Redskins.

   Children in the early 1960s were taught about the discovery of the New World. Christopher Columbus was depicted as a courageous gambler. Contrary to widely-held belief, we were taught, he thought the World was round. He took his case to the benevolent monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, who decided to gamble on this well-intentioned man of vision. Columbus set sail with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. As the voyage west grew longer, his crews became mutinous. Finally a palm frond was spotted in the water. Land was spotted. The New World was discovered. European civilization had arrived on what would become known as the North American continent.

   There are a few inaccuracies in the story we were told as children. Most people believed the World was spherical. This was the time of the Renaissance and Europe embraced many of the works of classic Greek and Roman scholars. Sass and Weingand, "History of the World," 2008, p. 189.  In the Fourth Century, BCE, Aristotle had written that the Earth was round. Russell, "Inventing the Flat Earth," 1991. Ptolemy was critical to classic thought on astronomy and he thought the World was spherical. There was not much doubt about the planet's shape.

   Ferdinand and Isabella were hardly benevolent. For that matter, most monarchs were hardly benevolent. Ferdinand and Isabella had just wiped out the Moors, Islamic rulers who had controlled the Iberian peninsula. When they overtook the peninsula, the royal pair also tossed out the Jews who lived there, too. Sass and Weingand, pp. 199-200. Columbus set sail with conquest in mind. To conquer is "to acquire by force of arms."  "The American College Dictionary," 1962 ed., p. 257. Without a notion of whether peoples on the other side of the big expanse of water were peaceful and therefore should not be subject to force of arms, Columbus headed that way.

   Columbus was greeted by islanders of the Arawak people. Columbus noted in his log:

     "They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

   What ensued were a few hundred years of genocide. Part of that genocide occurred when British military officials offered bounties for native peoples. To collect the bounty, one had to produce a skin to establish one, indeed, had killed such a person. After all, in the game of genocide, there was a certain degree of honesty imposed. That is the way in which people referred to "redskins." That is partly why many people find that particular nickname offensive.

   We have switched the name of the holiday to "Discovery Day," although people were living here for thousands of years before Columbus arrived on these shores. Even Europeans already had arrived in the New World a few hundred years before---the Vikings up the coast. We still gloss over the genocide and bloodshed. Tony Soprano did not understand why his teacher promoted such negative attitudes toward Columbus (an Italian) in AJ's studies at school.

   Genocide and falsehoods have delivered us a Federal holiday, appropriately during a partial shutdown of the Federal government. I will work. And I hope the owner of the Washington, D.C., NFL franchise changes the team's nickname. Perhaps he could choose one of those nicknames, popular at colleges, that does not end in an "s." He could choose something appropriate to D.C. The Washington Impasse? The Washington Befuddlement?

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