The Great Columbus Day Debate

There’s probably no more contentious Federal holiday than Columbus Day.

Increasingly, municipalities across the country are renaming it to Indigenous Peoples Day, to honor those who were decimated by the European conquest. Meanwhile, every year, apologists for the dominant neoliberal worldview publish op-ed pieces to defend the status quo. Their arguments, unfortunately, only demonstrate the moral vacuity of their position.

I’ve attempted to raise the level of conversation with this piece published today in Salon, which goes beyond the question of Columbus’s own character flaws, to investigate the mindset of the Europeans who followed him. Most importantly, the same mindset that—half a millennium later—now celebrates Columbus Day as a Federal holiday, is the one that is driving our civilization toward environmental catastrophe. This mindset is what we need to understand, and transform, is we’re to shift humanity’s trajectory toward one of sustainable flourishing.

What do you think? Please share in the Comments below.


What celebrating Columbus Day portends for our civilization

The mindset Columbus and his followers brought with them is the same one that is driving our global civilization toward environmental catastrophe.

[Originally published in Salon, October 9, 2017]

What does it tell us about our civilization that Columbus Day is celebrated as a federal holiday, with parades, barbecues, and football games, instead of a somber recognition of genocide, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates the atrocities of the Nazis? The answer might offer a key to a sustainable future for our civilization.

When Christopher Columbus first made landfall with his crew on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he was taken aback by the generosity and benevolence of the Taino people he encountered. He wrote in his journal how, if the Europeans asked them for something, they would freely share anything they owned “and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.”

It didn’t take long, though, for his mind to wander off in a different direction. Columbus quickly realized how easily he could take advantage of them, writing to the King and Queen of Spain how the Taino were so naïve that they cut themselves out of ignorance when they held a sword. “Should your Majesties command it,” he wrote, “all the inhabitants could be taken away to Spain or made slaves on the island. With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Columbus arrival
Columbus’s reaction to the Taino quickly turned to thoughts of exploitation

Columbus was obsessed with recklessly exploiting whatever he discovered in the New World, regardless of the consequences. He wasn’t alone in this. In fact, the entire European conquest was based on the premise of ruthless exploitation in order to enrich the explorers and those who had financed them.

The result was the greatest genocidal catastrophe that has occurred yet in human history. In every region European explorers discovered, a decimation of the local population ensued of almost unimaginable proportions. The population of central Mexico was twenty million in 1500, four times greater than Britain. Within a century, there were fewer than one million people alive there. Similarly, the population of the Inca empire collapsed from eleven million in 1500 to less than a million in 1600. It’s been estimated that in the 16th century alone, close to one hundred million indigenous people died in the Americas through slaughter, starvation, or disease.

Many historians have pointed the finger to the new diseases the Europeans brought with them that ravaged the local populations, some even going so far as to suggest that this catastrophe was inadvertent: a sad but inevitable consequence of human progress. However, as historians such as David Stannard and Eduardo Galleano have excruciatingly documented, the Europeans approached the new territories with a systematic compulsion to exploit remorselessly every last resource—human and mineral—they could ransack from the land. The havoc caused by European diseases just made their job that much easier.

In fact, as I discovered in researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, this obsession with exploiting resources without regard to consequences was unique to the European mindset—which has now become the predominant global mindset as a result of the European conquest of the rest of the world. Even though the facts of history make its direction seem inevitable, it didn’t have to be that way. Our modern world, and the values on which it’s founded, are the consequence of a particular way of thinking that arose only in Europe.

To understand this better, consider the example of Admiral Zheng, the Chinese commander who set sail in 1405—nearly a century before Columbus—with the greatest armada in history: twenty-seven thousand men in over three hundred ships, each about ten times the size of one of Columbus’s boats. Over nearly three decades, they dominated the Indian Ocean, from Sumatra to Sri Lanka, from Arabia to East Africa. But instead of using their power to enslave the indigenous people and plunder their raw materials, they used it to enhance the prestige of the Chinese emperor, setting up embassies in Nanjing with emissaries from Japan, Malaya, Vietnam, and Egypt.

Zheng He's fleet 1
Admiral Zheng’s fleet was overwhelmingly more powerful than any other force of its time—yet he didn’t enslave local populations

The reason for this astonishing contrast with Columbus was the value system Admiral Zheng brought with him. It would have been as unthinkable for Zheng to have conquered and enslaved the societies he visited with his armada, as it would have been for Columbus to have set up embassies with the indigenous people he encountered in the New World. In China, the predominant aim of political power was to sustain society’s equilibrium. Military might was seen as a force to use only when necessary to maintain stability.

The same held true for the Chinese view of their natural resources, much to the bemusement of early European missionaries. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, mystified why the Chinese failed to mine all the gold and silver in nearby mountains, wrote how their exploitation was hindered by “political views” that “the publick Tranquillity might not be disturbed by the too great abundance of these Metals, which would make the People haughty and negligent of Agriculture.”

Is it any coincidence that Chinese civilization, with its focus on maintaining stability, is the oldest in world history, surviving intact for millennia while every other early civilization collapsed into ruins? Modern China, of course, has taken to extractive global capitalism as avidly as any other nation on the planet, but that was only after a century of humiliation by Western powers caused traditional values to seem impotent by contrast.

At this point in the early twenty-first century, we are beginning to encounter the disastrous consequences of the mindset that Columbus, and those who followed him, brought with their voyages of conquest. The rapacious approach to mineral wealth that caused the Spaniards to extract every last grain from the world’s richest silver mine at Potosí, Bolivia, is the same mindset that drives today’s fossil fuel companies to rape the earth through fracking and tar sands extraction even while carbon emissions threaten the future of civilization. The moral ease with which Europeans drove millions of enslaved Native Americans and Africans to their deaths is the same grotesque mentality that today permits the wealthiest six men in the world to own as much as half the world’s population.

And that’s why how we choose to celebrate Columbus Day is a portent of our civilization’s future. As long as our predominant way of thinking rewards those who exploit others recklessly, and who view the earth as no more than a resource to plunder, we’re headed for environmental catastrophe. Even if we somehow manage to survive the climate breakdown, there are a slew of other existential crises waiting in the wings: topsoil degeneration, freshwater depletion, the Sixth Extinction of species, disappearance of fisheries, deforestation… the list goes on.

There’s a lot we can learn from Admiral Zheng and the traditional Chinese values that launched his expedition. But we don’t have to look that far. The indigenous people who stewarded the Americas for thousands of years before the Columbus cataclysm are themselves manifesting the vision our entire world needs to survive. At Standing Rock, water protectors fought the poisoning of their homeland with prayer and ceremony, declaring their love and respect for the natural world and the overriding importance of its responsible stewardship for future generations.

In South America, indigenous tribes are organizing to prevent the wanton destruction of their habitat by oil and mining corporations. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the buen vivir movement fosters a value system based on community and deep connection with the earth as a counterpoint to the Western drive for exploitation and extraction.

AMAZON_WATCH_»_Toxic_Mega-Mine_Looms_Over_Belo_Monte_s_Affected_Communities
Indigenous people of the Amazon are fighting against destruction of their land by fossil fuel and mining mega-corporations

Many municipalities throughout the United States, recognizing the outrage of commemorating Columbus Day, have officially changed its name to Indigenous Peoples Day, using it as an opportunity to honor those who have been decimated and yet continue to offer a vision of hope for humanity’s future. Maybe on some future date, that change will be made at the national level, and we will have a federal Indigenous Peoples Day. Might that day, perhaps, be the very day on which our civilization begins to shift course away from annihilation and toward a flourishing future?

 

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How Bad Will It Get? What Can We Do About It?

I watched with horror last night, like millions of others, as the election began pointing to a Trump victory. It felt like the world slipping into a bottomless abyss. And now we’re in it, spiraling downwards. Which leaves the gut wrenching question, awful to contemplate: how bad will it get?

There are already a large number of disastrous outcomes that seem all but inevitable. A license for brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who fits the criteria of Trump’s racist xenophobia. The end of Obamacare and any safety net for those with pre-existing conditions. With a climate denier in the White House, an open road for fossil fuel companies to ravage the earth, and speed up the onset of full scale climate catastrophe. The EPA gutted. A Supreme Court stacked with reactionaries to rubber stamp the Republican agenda and undo decades of moral progress in American society.

How Bad Could It Get?

Could it get even worse than that? There have been plenty of critiques comparing Trump to earlier fascist leaders, such as Hitler or Mussolini, who collectively caused over 60 million deaths and brought the world close to total ruin. With rising populist xenophobia around the world – the Brexit vote, racist political parties in Europe, the recent election of brutal Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte – this awful scenario needs to be contemplated.

I grew up in a Jewish family in London. The only reason my parents were alive was that their parents happened to migrate to England rather than somewhere else in Europe. During my teens, I became aware of the full horror of the Holocaust, leaving a dread deep down that never really disappeared. I felt blessed to live in happier times, and often wondered: how would I have reacted to the extremities of the 1930s if I’d lived through that period? Now, we may all be called to answer that question in our current reality.

hitler-speaking
It’s happened before. What can we learn from Hitler’s rise?

Could Trump’s victory lead to the end of democracy in the US? Will the world devolve into global warfare? These questions may take years to answer, but a perusal of Hitler’s trajectory to power does highlight some warning signs that we’ll need to take seriously, such as:

  • Serious intimidation and threats targeting politicians and activists who disagree with Trump
  • Intimidation and legal action against newspapers and online media who oppose Trump’s agenda
  • Incitement of violence at demonstrations, leading to escalating rhetoric and further violence
  • Calls for emergency measures when cycles of violence begin to get out of hand
  • Lawsuits and arrests of activists based on fictitious charges

Of course, Trump’s election campaign has already flaunted all of these, and worse. With Trump as President, they may spell the end of any semblance of freedom and democracy we’ve been used to.

What Can We Do About It?

In a time of extreme polarity, faced with hatred, fear, and violence, how can we respond? I believe there are right responses at different levels of engagement: political, community, and individual.

Politically, it’s essential to become even more engaged than before. We can’t afford despair and finger-pointing. Each of us needs to identify the causes that matter most to us, and commit a significant amount of our time and energy to fighting for them, joining the national and global struggle for justice. (Two great examples: 350.org and MoveOn.org).

We need to keep our eyes firmly focused on a vision of future flourishing. Imagine how bleak the world looked in 1942, at the peak of Nazi dominance in Europe. Yet, even at the darkest hour, a better world was not far off. We may be descending into an abyss right now, but with enough of us actively engaged, we will eventually move through it into the light.

We need to build resilience and bonds within our community like never before. Trump’s brutalism is based on hatred and separation. Each one us has the power to combat it through compassion and connection. Take the extra moment to acknowledge strangers to let them know you see them. Turn acquaintances into friends. Turn friendships into mutually reinforcing nourishment. Look for new ways to actively support and aid each other – especially those who are in Trump’s crosshairs. (Two great examples: SURJ and Movement Generation).

And within ourselves, we need to find a moral courage that may be tested in ways we haven’t ever considered. When our core values are under attack like never before, we must connect with them even more strongly, and consciously live every day according to them. In an era of brutalism, each of us may face challenges that will define who we are: How can I use my own privilege to benefit others? Shall I speak up against that racist or misogynistic invective even if it makes me unpopular? Go on that demonstration even if I risk getting beaten up? Engage in civil disobedience even if I risk getting arrested?

We enter into a period of increasing darkness. None of us knows yet how dark it will get, how bottomless the pit. We do know, however, that we can choose to act as beacons of light. Joined together, that light can lead the way to a better place for us all, and a future of flourishing that seems achingly distant right now.