I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.
The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.
So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.
“In 1492,” they tell me, “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” As a feat of science in the age of discovery, there is no doubt that this was an event worth celebrating. Over time, however, the luster has diminished somewhat. Although I can speak only for myself, I often feel that being a male caucasian is a decided liability. It certainly has been in my professional life. Although my ancestors were probably busy grubbing an existence from the soil as Columbus nobly stood on the forecastle, spyglass in hand and India in his heart, we are classed together. Attitudes toward divine destiny were much different then. The European powers that had made the world they discovered in their image could only see this as the will of the Almighty. That’s the liability of omnipotence. What happens is, by definition, God’s will. As technology led from success to success, Columbus set off to shrink his world. And get rich in the process. What’s so wrong with that?
The view among the displaced may be very different. People, if pagan, happened to be living in Canaan before Moses arrived, according to Holy Writ. They were, however, an annoying inconvenience to a God who had it all planned out. And since that torch had been passed to the Christian leaders of Europe, although contested by the Muslim leaders elsewhere, they had to follow their destiny to these sacred shores. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you sitting here? And those who march in the parades do it a bit more self-consciously while the majority of us continue to work in New Amsterdam as if nothing extraordinary had happened. As if a genocide hadn’t led to prosperity. As if, although God has disappeared, this wasn’t manifest destiny after all.
Humans can’t be blamed for being curious. It is part of our nature. I do wonder what will happen when we finally stop fighting one another and land ourselves on another inhabited planet. One where they haven’t achieved the technology that we have. Will we have learned anything from the St. Columbus Day massacre or will we still be guided by our confidence in lenses that can see billions of years into the past, see the havoc we’ve visited upon our own planet and still say, “it is good”? Even on the bridge of the Enterprise there is only one alien standing, and he is wearing earth clothes. Can we be disinterested observers when potential wealth lies below the feet of those we meet? We respect your culture, but hey, what’s that you’re standing on? Mind if we take it? You’re not using it. And once their voices have been silenced, we’ll seek other oceans blue to sail.
In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?
The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.
Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”