In our era of identity politics -- largely brought to us by the Left -- white ethnic groups have not received a lot of attention. This is apparently the case with Italian-Americans, who are about to be denied a symbol and historic figure who has been important to them: Christopher Columbus.
For decades Columbus Day has been celebrated without opposition, and Americans believed that just as the Irish celebrate their heritage on St. Patrick’s Day, Italian-Americans had a right to celebrate theirs on Columbus Day. Yes, Columbus arrived in the “New World” by anchoring in the Bahamas, and never made it to North American soil. Yet, as Lakshmi Gandhi points out, it was not until 1828 when Washington Irving wrote a book about Columbus’ voyages that the glorification and mythmaking about Columbus’ role started. Irving’s book began with the widespread move to America by Italian immigrants in his own day. Italian immigration then skyrocketed between 1880 and World War I.
Italian immigrants, like others to come after them, found that they were hardly welcome in America. They were viewed as foreign and strange, and worst of all, they were Catholics.
But after a mass lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans in 1891, Pres. Benjamin Harrison in 1892 called for a national observance of Columbus Day in honor of the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the New World. Harrison linked the celebration to American patriotism. Italian-Americans, however, because they were discriminated against, saw this celebration of Columbus as one way to be accepted by all Americans. It took a long time -- until 1934 during FDR’s administration -- to proclaim Columbus Day a federal holiday. Yet some states and cities still do not celebrate it.
Why are we not surprised to learn that Berkeley, California, often called “The People’s Republic of Berkeley,” proclaimed in 1992 that the second Monday in October would be “Indigenous Peoples Day,” thereby assuring their reputation as the place at the forefront of PC activism?
The anti-Columbus actions today are the result of the two or three generations who learned their American history from the late Howard Zinn.
As I argued here and here, Zinn believed, as he wrote, that all of America history comes down to “genocide: brutally and purposefully waged by our rulers in the name of progress.” He claimed that these truths were buried "in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth." Zinn’s entire oeuvre is based on the fallacy that all of America’s leaders waged war against those who really made the American nation: the poor, the Native Americans, the African-Americans, the working-class, women, and all other oppressed people suffering from the power of the capitalist ruling class.
Zinn, as you can imagine, portrayed Columbus as one of the most savage perpetrators of genocide who ever lived. Anyone who watched The Sopranos remembers when Tony Soprano’s son came back from school carrying Zinn’s book, and asked his dad how he could celebrate Columbus Day, when Columbus was a savage colonizer. If the show was still in production, I’m sure it would have had Tony livid with rage when he found out that New York City was debating whether to remove Columbus statues and to reevaluate the explorer’s legacy.
On 59th Street between Broadway and Central Park West is the square known as Columbus Circle, upon which a statue of Columbus on a 76-foot pedestal stands. Already, the demand is being made on Mayor Bill de Blasio that it be torn down, along with other similar figures who were flawed individuals. It has been reported by Barbara Demick that in Yonkers, a suburb of NYC, a statue of Columbus has already been decapitated by vandals, and the head thrown by a trash can. In Queens, another was defaced with the slogan “Tear It Down: Don’t Honor Genocide.” De Blasio said he does not want Columbus statues removed, but he asked for such a reaction by announcing that the city would undertake a 90-day reexamination of “symbols of hate” that sit on New York property.
Immediately, Sal Albanese, one of de Blasio’s primary challengers in the forthcoming Democratic primary, pointed out that the statue was created by an Italian sculptor in 1892, and was funded by contributions made by Italian immigrants who were opposed to the discrimination against them at that time. Albanese’s solution is to leave the statue up, but to turn the plaza surrounding it into an educational forum with texts informing the public about Columbus’ role in conquest and slavery.
Somehow, I don’t think this “compromise” will satisfy the Antifa crowd.
For Italian-Americans, celebrating Columbus has little to do with the explorer. It is a day to mark the contributions they have made to the United States. One NYC council member noted that his grandfather belonged to the Italian American Civil Rights League in the '70s, which rallied in the thousands at the site of the Columbus statue. By now, there are so many places, cities, monuments, etc. named after Columbus. Are they all going to be changed or face violent protests if they are not? Will Antifa thugs appear at scores of these sites?
Whatever NYC decides to do with the Columbus statue, the issue is what comes next.
Yale has already changed the name of its Calhoun Hall. Will Columbia, Maryland, rename itself? Then there is Columbus, Ohio. What about Columbia University? For that matter, what will Columbus Circle be renamed? The choices are limitless.
Already, Al Sharpton has recommended doing something about the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., since Jefferson owned slaves, and indeed, had a love affair and children with his slave Sally Hemings. Will they take Jefferson out, put in a statue of Hemings, and name it Hemings Memorial in honor of all the slaves Jefferson owned?
Once all the remaining Confederate monuments and statues are dealt with, the PC police will find others that in their eyes are racist, sexist, or seen as praising imperialism.
A campaign has already started to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue outside of New York's Museum of Natural History, placed there in honor of TR’s commitment to the development of national parks that preserve the land for all the citizens to use. To his critics, TR was the symbol of racism, extreme nationalism, and imperialism, exemplified by his Rough Riders Brigade fighting the Spanish in Cuba. In 2010, Jonathan S. Tobin wrote the following:
For Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers, and James Bradley, who has just published The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, Roosevelt is the source of much of what ails America today. Thomas offers an account of this nation’s drift to war against Spain in 1898 in which TR (as he was known in his day) is the central figure in a movement driven more by aristocratic male insecurity than national priorities. The author believes that this suggests “eerie” parallels with the invasion of Iraq. In his book, Bradley blames TR for not only inspiring neoconservatives to wage war and torture innocents but also for the fact that the United States was attacked by Japan in 1941, 22 years after Roosevelt’s death.
Forget that to the Left, TR was once a popular figure to praise. He set aside land for the national parks, he was a naturalist, he fought Wall Street and favored progressive reforms. Tobin asked justly whether “the question now is whether smears of Roosevelt’s character rooted in the politics of our own day will finally topple him from his pedestal.” Tobin wondered whether the time would come when TR would be found to be “the personification of vainglorious American hubris” and a “showy fraud” who was “a blot on the honor of his country.” Mr. Tobin certainly was prescient.
Once again, the hard left is winning the cultural war, and its cadre is only getting started. It’s Columbus today; someone else we now honor tomorrow. Will the large population of campus leftists, led by the likes of Antifa, eventually emulate China’s Red Guards during the disastrous “Cultural Revolution,” and burn down temples and desecrate ancient sites and cemeteries?
I think we are still far from that, but we know that the Red Guards were acting according to their belief that all symbols of Chinese history that they deemed “incorrect” had to be eradicated.
It is hardly impossible to think that if Americans choose to keep some of these monuments up, the vanguard of self-proclaimed revolutionary forces could act on their own to get the job done.
We have a big fight ahead.