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The Discourse

What Conservatives Accidentally Get Right About Columbus Day

They say we're living in the world he made, and they're correct! They just think that's a good thing.

A painting of Columbus landing in the Americas. Conservatives are accidentally right about Columbus Day.
John Vanderlyn's 'The Landing of Columbus,' located in the U.S. Capitol.

It’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which means it’s also Columbus Day, which means it’s also time for the ever-more-bizarre tradition of Annual Columbus Discourse. Both Columbus and the horrors he inspired have always been controversial, but he is now an increasingly surreal player in our endless culture war—yet another chance for conservatives to take down the wokeocracy by praising someone who makes the libs mad. Scroll through online today and you will find many, many right-wingers going out of their way to pay tribute to one of history’s greatest monsters. (Maybe even the greatest?? Top 5 for sure! If you want an excellent summary of what made Columbus so terrible, Caitlin did one last year.)

This from New York Republican Rep. Claudia Tenney, stood out to me:

It’s the crux of the conservative Columbus Day argument: celebrate Columbus because without him, there would be no America. And really, where is the lie? Tenney and her ideological bedfellows are right: in so many ways, we are living in the world Columbus and his fellow colonizers made. They just think that’s something to celebrate rather than condemn.

America is a country unable to shake its addiction to white supremacy; that delights in the subjugation of its most oppressed classes; that is awash in constant violence, much of it carried out by the state. It is a country whose political system has made it easy to kill and immiserate people and almost impossible to help them. All of these things have long, long roots in the past—and in Columbus.

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Chattel slavery is often described as America’s original sin, and it is certainly one of them, but all of the bloody tyranny found in that system can also be found in the genocide of Native people that was kickstarted by Columbus and his ilk and carried forward by generations of white people for hundreds of years. The history of the United States is rooted in the development of both of these evils, which unfolded alongside and in tandem with each other. They are intertwining and intimately connected, and equally crucial to the amoral framework upon which this country’s origins—and most of its modern crimes, from mass incarceration to endless war—rest. The line is not hard to draw. (To give just one example: the painting of Columbus illustrating this blog is currently located in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. It was installed in 1847, when the Trail of Tears was still ongoing and slavery was still thriving. The government page describing it has not a single thing to say about any of this.)

The U.S. always does the work of making these connections for you, including today.

Some people might object to Tenney’s pairing of Columbus with the concepts of “liberty and equality.” Here too, she is being unintentionally revealing about the mainstream American story. Saying that Columbus inspired liberty is incoherent and objectionable, but worshiping our slave-owning founding fathers as titans of liberty is quite incoherent too, and yet hundreds of millions of people do that all the time. (I don’t see too many liberals lining up to question their devotion to the most successful piece of American historical propaganda of our time: Hamilton, which, among other things, places brutal slaver George Washington in the most glowing possible light.)

Conservatives like Tenney are gross and racist and clinging to rotten mythology, and they are using Columbus as a pawn in a political game. But they are correct about something very real: celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day may reflect the kind of country many people want America to be, but Columbus Day is, in so many ways, a truer symbol of what the U.S. as a whole actually is. That’s not to say that we should let Columbus Day stick around—it has no place in a civilized world, or even one striving to be civilized. But it’s to remind us that our task is to create a society in which we can say Columbus has nothing to do with the way things are now, and have that be true.