History

A Columbus Day Thought

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Economist Bryan Caplan, author of our October cover story on "The Four Boneheaded Biases of Stupid Voters," thinks he sees some cognitive dissonance in some defenders of Columbus Day from multi-culti relativists:

Critics of multi-culturalism often mock its proponents for (a) cultural relativism and (b) disrepecting Columbus. The problem, as I've explained before, is that Columbus was a pioneer of slavery and barbarism. The only way to excuse his behavior is to say "Oh, you can't judge Columbus by our standards. In those days, people thought that slavery was OK. Everyone was doing it."

If that excuse makes sense to you, you're a cultural relativist. Change your heroes, or change your meta-ethics!

NEXT: The Battle of Bern

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  1. The Vikings beat Columbus anyway. Where do you think all of the Viking Moose came from?

  2. Breaking news: conservatives are hypocrites. Also, so are liberals.

  3. Yes, because we all know that barbarity and slavery didn’t exist in the western hemisphere prior to the arrival of Columbus, right?

  4. Does it follow that the multi-culturalists are advocating moral and cultural absolutism by condemning Columbus?

  5. I find myself more concerned about what it says about Canadians that they’re celebrating Thanksgiving on Columbus Day! Are they thankful for his heritage of slavery and oppression?? I thought they were supposed to be the NICE Americans!

  6. I thought they were supposed to be the NICE Americans!,/i>
    How nice can a group of people who celebrate Boxing Day be?

  7. A pox be on the house of italics!

  8. The problem, as I’ve explained before, is that Columbus was a pioneer of slavery and barbarism.

    Columbus invented slavery and barbarism?

    I guess he must have discovered Cuba in one million BC.

  9. Caplan is right. Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish priest who witnessed Spanish brutality, was a critic of the practices well before Columbus’s legacy was revised.

    David Crawford–
    I’m not sure what your point is. It’s true that the New World wasn’t a paradise pre-1492, but just because cruelty and savagery existed before Columbus’s arrival–and we know they did–that wouldn’t absolve or mitigate the cruelty and savagery of the Spanish themselves. The inner city might see a lot of homicides, but doesn’t excuse the dude from the suburbs who gets his jollies by shooting into the ghettos indiscriminately.

    Also, most multiculturalists don’t believe all cultures are equal by any stretch of the imagination. If they did, they wouldn’t argue for civil rights, women’s rights, etc. in their own societies; the idea of progress wouldn’t make sense. What multiculturalists do believe is that we can learn something from other cultures and that we should tread cautiously when trying to introduce changes in other societies. That is, I dare say, a sentiment that has been supported by the events of the last six years.

  10. Yes, because we all know that barbarity and slavery didn’t exist in the western hemisphere prior to the arrival of Columbus, right?

    So that makes it okay?

    That hypothetical question may serve well to condemn any condemner of Columbus who refuses to condemn Indians/Native Americans who likewise enslaved their fellow human, but it hardly takes Columbus off the hook nor addresses the hypocrisy of anyone who criticizes Columbus’s critics on the basis of moral relativism, the latter being the point of the post.

  11. I think it’s more in celebrating something about a historical figure who, by today’s (and let’s hope the correct, I’m no relativist) moral standards can be found wanting in ways many in his time were. So Columbus was both brave and an enslaver. In the same way people can celebrate Robert E. Lee’s courage and brilliance on the battlefield without excusing the fact that he fought for an abhorrent cause. Junking everyone unless they were absolutely correct on everything, even in defiance of their own societies and common thinking, is a pretty tyrannical criteria…

  12. Columbus and the Native Americans were barbarous and enslavers…one beat the other and history was made.

    I am sure glad they are all dead and I live now in a culture that finds their’s grotesque.

    How is that for multi-cultural tolerance?

  13. Mr. Nice Guy,

    The obvious answer to that is that we’ll remember that on Robert E. Lee Day!! 🙂

    Oy, I shouldn’t get into this debate cause ultimately who cares about all this symbolism anyway? I think it’s an interesting point that Columbus’s defenders seem to be employing classic cultural relativism, but at the same time, let’s be real. Columbus Day advocates are not defending his crimes any more than people who employ Soviet iconography in their fashion are necessarily defending that regime’s crimes. It’s all a lot of hot air people. Spew windbags, just don’t spew on me…

  14. Or, perhaps they are just celebrating the event that opened up the Americas to European settlement.
    I, for one, would not have existed if not for it. It seems weird to me to denigrate something that made your own existence possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with that..

  15. history is written by the winners

  16. It’s not Columbus Day anyway. This is a CONgressionally mandated three day weekend where Americans make only the slightest pretense of giving a crap about Columbus discovering America.

    Aside from that, life in 1492 was barbarian, not just in Spain or the New World, but across the entire planet.

    Nor was Columbus a pioneer of slavery or barbarism, that is ludicrous on it’s face given that slavery existed since time began and the barbarism of the Crusades, just to use one example, predated Columbus by a couple hundred years.

    Columbus did one BIG thing, he sailed to what we now call the New World and found a bunch of locals who were celebrating NOT HAVING BEEN DISCOVERED YET DAY on the beach.

    That is a big deal. Nobody ever did that before. Like going to the moon or Lindy flying across the Atlantic, it was a huge milestone. That’s why he’s an important player in history.

    And yes, the Vikings beat him to it but they didn’t videotape it, so not too many people noticed.

  17. I think the phrase “vae victis” puts this little controversy into perspective. My how times have changed.

  18. I think relativism is wrong, but we have to judge it by the context of its period.

  19. Columbus-hate is another facet of the same psychological flaw that causes people to:

    * Demand ‘perfect’ Presidential candidates and consider even minor character flaws to be career-ending defects. See: some evangelicals saying they won’t vote Republican if Giuliani is nominated.

    * Demand ‘pure’ libertarianism from libertarians. If you don’t denounce vouchers, you’re a CRYPTO-STATIST!

    * Respond to any argument that includes the thought of Thomas Jefferson with ‘… but he owned slaves!’

    * Look for evidence that Martin Luther King was secretly a philanderer.

    People aren’t perfect. Some of them are really, really far from perfect. Some of them are downright bad. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge their positive achievements.

    Or, to put it in as extreme an example I can think of: Just because you believe the Nazi party had the best aesthetics, doesn’t mean you’ve given Hitler your moral sanction.

  20. Does any historical figure have any chance of being anything but a villain if judged in todays light? I’d bet Shakespeare had some pretty retro ideas about gender, race, government, and all sorts of things that would mark him a grade A asshole if he was around today.

  21. Was Columbus worse than Che? I mean, in terms of the number of victims. In our search for heros with clean hands, we may be reduced to Mother Theresa. But didn’t Hitchens do a number on her?

  22. Isildur, there are many points in your post one can agree with. However, even though the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, the bad should be, and in some cases, the good may be seriously outweighed by the bad (in some cases so much so that any positive achievements may be not really worth mentioning). Making the perfect the enemy of the good is not the same as tolerating the least awful.

    Similarly, it may be that evangelicals find that Giuliani doesn’t agree with them on anything that they think is really important. I don’t know, myself, just guessing. If this is the case, it’s a perfect reason for them to not vote for him.

    There’s never a good reason to allow your vote to be a choice between the lesser of evils, if that’s really what you find you’re looking at. A libertarian would likely find something to disagree with most candidates about but if the preference between two comes down to “well, candidate A is just a little less horrible than candidate B,” you’ve got no good reason to vote for either. (Of course there are plenty of good reasons not to waste your time voting anyway, but that’s a different question.)

    And really, you shouldn’t have kept the ring.

  23. There is a difference between saying, “That action is not right!” and saying, “The person who did that action is an immoral person!”

    Before judging whether a person is morally culpable for an action, you do have to consider whether it is likely they knew they were doing something wrong. The prevailing moral attitudes in the time and place where the person lives/lived, and the general sense of what’s right and wrong to which that person is exposed, is relevant to making that judgment of personal culpability, and hence, morality. It is not necessarily relevant to whether the specific behavior is right.

    Basically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to blame Krog the Cromagnon for being a sexist. He probably didn’t know any better. It might make more sense to blame Rashid the modern-day Saudi Arabian for being sexist, as he is more likely to be exposed to modern ideas than Krog, but to some extent Rashid’s blame is mitigated by the attitudes all around him, growing up and living in his own culture.

    It makes more sense to morally blame Bob, the 20-something resident of 2007 New York City, for his sexism. It’s unlikely that you can claim he never knew any better.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that sexism itself is right, in any time or any place.

    It makes sense to yell at Bob to try to reform him. It makes sense to try to reform Rashid, but in this case you’re more likely to make headway if you understand where he’s coming from culturally.

    It doesn’t make sense to try to reform Krog at all, since he’s long dead. You don’t want people today to be like Krog. But that doesn’t mean he was evil, in terms of knowing what was wrong and doing it anyway.

  24. As far as a search for heroes goes:

    I can take them or leave them*. Try to be your own hero.

    * – Except for Krog, he’s one cool so-and-so with the clubs and the smashing and the sabretooth tiger pelt.

  25. One thing to be kept in mind is that the criticisms of Columbus were in very many ways a necessary corrective after a long period in which Columbus was mainly viewed as an unalloyed hero.

    Stevo Darkly,

    You may wish to check out this story on a recently discovered document regarding Columbus’ time in office.

  26. After we admit that CC was a bad dude, what then? What would Caplan have us do? Give everything back? Pay reparations?

    See also:
    mexica-movement.org
    youtube.com/watch?v=_8Lri1-6aoY

    Off-topic bonus: very good advice for Ron Paul fans. (Note: I’m not being sarcastic).

  27. As far as a search for heroes goes:

    Why don’t we have day of remembrance for Joshua Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico? I’m pretty sure he never enslaved anyone.

  28. It seems others have made my point: there is a difference between cultural relativism and temporal relativism. Perhaps there is a better word than “temporal” but you get the idea.

  29. But didn’t Hitchens do a number on her? [Mother Theresa]

    No, but Penn and Teller did…

  30. Taktix

    Hitchens did too. And he did it first.

    In fact P&T used him on their show.

  31. Where? Link? Mystery commenter, come back!

  32. Why is it that I am suspect of any argument that contains a hyphenated expression beginning in ‘meta-‘?

  33. Lamar,

    During his own lifetime Columbus was viewed by many as a tyrant (as the link I provided illustrates).

  34. Regis Carnifex,

    Point taken. He was pretty cool.

  35. David Crawford-Look up the term non sequitur. Re-read your post. Reflect and learn.


  36. gaijin | October 8, 2007, 5:39pm | #

    I thought they were supposed to be the NICE Americans!,/i>
    How nice can a group of people who celebrate Boxing Day be?

    Go to Williams Lake, BC on January 2nd. They celebrate “Wrestling Day”.

  37. Or, perhaps they are just celebrating the event that opened up the Americas to European settlement.

    Does anyone really believe that Europeans would never have settled America if it weren’t for Columbus? That no one else — maybe someone who wasn’t a mass-murdering slaver — would have crossed the ocean instead?

    After we admit that CC was a bad dude, what then? What would Caplan have us do?

    He’d have us recognize that he’s a bad dude, same as we do for Mao or Mussolini or Leopold & Loeb.

  38. I’m just concerned Bryan Caplan doesn’t hurt sales of his own book by getting mired in this sort of shilly-shallying.

    Everything is relative, eh, Bryan?

  39. “He’d have us recognize that he’s a bad dude, same as we do for Mao or Mussolini or Leopold & Loeb.”

    Okay CC is a bad dude, but you need to speak to my bosses at the bank. They told me to take today off. What was I gonna say?

    Is that relativism too?
    Should I have flagellated myself today?
    (What if I did?)

  40. Jesse Walker,

    Well, given that the Basques were fishing off of North America and landed on occassion during the 14th century…

    Anyway, it should be noted that unlike other contacts between Europe and North America the Spanish actually made settlements in the Americas. Why that is a complicated matter, but no other European nation really got going on settlement* until a hundred years after the Spaniards. Really the Spaniards were quite lucky in many ways; in particular regarding the historical accidents that they fell into regarding the Incas and the Aztecs.

    *There were some furtive attempts like a French colony in Brazil in the 1540s and so forth, but they came to nothing.

  41. Jesse Walker,

    Or let me put this differently, imagine a largely immune Aztec and Inca* population encountering the Spanish. Even granting the Spanish their native allies the contest would have been far more difficult for the Spanish and would perhaps have at the very least resembled the hundred year or so war the Spanish fought against the Mayans.

    *Yeah, both were mutli-ethnic empires, but you get my point.

  42. Hey Whacker, in Latin America Columbus Day is called “Dia de la Raza”. Maybe you should look into SecretLinks this holiday may have with IllegalMexicans.

  43. Boxing Day isn’t about people punching each other silly for 12 rounds until somebody collapses to the canvas with permanent brain damage.

    Did somebody use the term barbaric?

  44. Let’s see, Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, Lincoln wanted to send blacks back to Africa…so why doesn’t President’s Day get this much protest?

  45. Anyway, the two viewpoints are not contradictory. It’s possible to condemn the evil practices of an age and at the same time honor the people who happened to live in it. My guess is that people who have a problem with that are the same people whose heads explode at the mention of “hate the sin, love the sinner”.

  46. Jesse Walker,

    By your logic we shouldn’t admire anybody who discovered or invented anything because of the likelihood that somebody at some point in the future would have discovered or invented that same thing at a later date.

  47. Cesar, you have to be more clear. It took me fully five minutes to figure out who you were poking in the eye.

    Well, maybe I need to take dense lessons.

  48. sinners are easy to love
    Duh.

  49. Actually, I think it was the Italian community last century that was largely responsible for creating Columbus Day.

    I, for one, wouldn’t be dissing Gillespie’s clan. Dose guys got relatives in Joisey.

  50. Actually, I think it was the Italian community last century that was largely responsible for creating Columbus Day.

    That reminds me, Does anyone remember the Sopranos episode about Columbus Day? I think it gave a pretty good commentary on the controversy surrounding it.

  51. crimethink,

    It is also possible to condemn the evil practics of an individual. In the late 18th century (to use two of your examples) there was a lot of debate regarding the merits, morality, etc. of slavery. Washington and Jefferson made some rather conscious choices (for the time being we’ll accept that such a thing as free will exists) regarding those debates and wrote about such in their private correspondence.

  52. Columbus came to fight the terrorists here instead of fighting them over there.

  53. By your logic we shouldn’t admire anybody who discovered or invented anything because of the likelihood that somebody at some point in the future would have discovered or invented that same thing at a later date.

    What is it about this topic that turns off people’s reading comprehension circuits? I never said anything of the kind. You can admire Columbus for his seafaring skills if you want. You can admire Mao’s poetry and Mussolini’s sleek bald head. You can point out that if it weren’t for Leopold & Loeb, Hitchcock never would have made the fine film Rope. You can track down some wonderful people whose parents never would have met if it they hadn’t been fleeing Pol Pot. Go wild.

    But don’t claim that the choice was between Columbus arriving and no European settlement at all. Because that’s just extremely unlikely.

  54. “Columbus came to fight the terrorists here instead of fighting them over there.”

    How hard would it have been for native Americans to secure their borders and their ports, for cryin’ out loud!
    They were slackers! Deserved what they got!

  55. Jesse,

    So it’s likely that some righteous individual would have discovered America? I would say that is extremely unlikely.

  56. Jesse Walker,

    So, we honor George Washington for his military prowess, but not for his central role in the Revolution? There were many far better generals before and since who no one knows about, and it’s fairly certain that, given its burgeoning population and wealth of resources, the colonies would have eventually achieved independence (or even wound up being the dominant part of the United Kingdom) had it not been for him.

  57. David E. Gallaher:

    Hah! (You are joking right? Based on what I’ve read written elsewhere in H&R — as recently as last weekends comment regarding racism — I think the answer is “yes”.)

  58. I don’t see why we have to celebrate colombus’s birthday. Afterall, we all enjoy the benefits of the invention ‘wheel’ without celebrating the neanderthal who invented the wheel.

  59. So, we honor George Washington for his military prowess, but not for his central role in the Revolution?

    To repeat myself: “What is it about this topic that turns off people’s reading comprehension circuits?”

    It might help to go back and reread the comment I was originally responding to.

  60. see Presentism

    on a related note: you can play like Captain Kirk talking the all powerful computer into destroying itself by discussing female genital mutilation and cultural relativism with a feminist cultural anthropology grad student

  61. see Presentism

    But this isn’t Presentism. As Syloson pointed out, Columbus was criticized in his own day as well as recently. The evils of slavery and mass murder are not a recent discovery.

  62. I think Jesse Walker states my point more succinctly than I apparently could.

  63. Well, given that the Basques were fishing off of North America and landed on occassion during the 14th century…

    SoS,

    That would be early /mid 15th century I believe- still before Columbus.

    The Spanish weren’t just “lucky” with their encounters with Native American Civilizations.
    They were spectacularly “good” at it.

  64. “As Syloson pointed out, Columbus was criticized in his own day as well as recently. The evils of slavery and mass murder are not a recent discovery.”

    In fact, when Columbus brought Indian slaves from Hispaniola back to Spain as a gift to Queen Isabella, she was disgusted with him and ordered them to be taken back home and released.

    It is ironic to note, however, that even Bartolome de las Casas proposed bringing in African slaves as a more ethical alternative to enslaving the Indians.

  65. jesse,

    I didn’t read the comments before commenting

    The modern Columbus haters were not relying on
    the document SoS refers to as it did not come to light until last year.They are engaging in presentism,particularly in light of the History of Spanish conquest and exploration of the New World.

  66. SIV,

    No, the 14th century is correct.

    The Spanish weren’t just “lucky” with their encounters with Native American Civilizations.
    They were spectacularly “good” at it.

    Disease was the major factor in the Spanish conquest. It (by killing off the Incan ruler) for example created the turmoil which had been roiling the Inca state prior to Pizzaro’s arrival.

  67. But don’t claim that the choice was between Columbus arriving and no European settlement at all. Because that’s just extremely unlikely.

    Right, like the guy who discovered the Mississippi. Like they wouldn’t have eventually found that anyway…

  68. SIV,

    Regarding the Spanish conquest, there were all manner of protests and reservations concerning the activities of the Conquistadors during the events in question, and these documents have been in the hands of scholars for several hundred years. Indeed, they were used by the English Protestants as a means to justify their efforts to invade Spanish lands in the Americas during the Interregnum. That’s how Jamaica became a British colony in the 17th century.

  69. The Spanish weren’t just “lucky” with their encounters with Native American Civilizations.
    They were spectacularly “good” at it.

    This is correct. The Spanish had a couple hundred years of experience in brutality, and they put it to good use in the New World.

  70. Warty,

    Well, the Aztecs and Inca were equally brutal in warfare, though (in the case of the Aztecs) their tactics differed by the need to make the defeated into sacrifices.

  71. SoS,
    got a cite on Portugese fishing/seafaring near NA in 14th century? A quick look at a timeline showed they didn’t find the Azores until early 15th.

    I had always taken the contemporary attacks on Spain in the New World as being based on their Spanishness and Catholicism rather than actually violating the day’s standards of civilized exploitation and conquest.

  72. The Spanish had a couple hundred years of experience in brutality

    They had a few centuries of a “Muslim Problem” thats fo’ sure.

  73. SIV is right, Columbus was a great man for introducing these savages to civilization, if a few got killed the process who cares? It ended their stupid savage existence.

  74. SoS,

    Disease and political turmoil aside, Pizarro and Cortez were spectacularly outnumbered by professional armies.DeSoto’s initial handling of challenges in the South East of NA was equally, if not more,impressive.

  75. Disease was the major factor in the Spanish conquest

    The proposition has been put forth elsewhere that within 150 years after Columbus came to the new world that 85% of the locals were dead from disease or dismemberment.

    My point is that that don’t leave very many Indian chicks to marry those icky Spaniards whose children became the Mestizos.

  76. The Spanish had a couple hundred years of experience in brutality

    They had a few centuries of a “Muslim Problem” thats fo’ sure.

    Yeah, but back then it was the Muslims that tolerated Jews and the Spanish that needlessly tourtured them.

  77. SoS,

    Disease and political turmoil aside, Pizarro and Cortez were spectacularly outnumbered by professional armies.DeSoto’s initial handling of challenges in the South East of NA was equally, if not more,impressive.

    Isn’t that like saying, Russian Army aside, Ike really kicked the shit out of the German Army?

    Oh wait, that’s the History Channel.

  78. SIV,

    The Basques aren’t Portugese.

    I had always taken the contemporary attacks on Spain in the New World as being based on their Spanishness and Catholicism rather than actually violating the day’s standards of civilized exploitation and conquest.

    Many of the attacks came from Spanish and Catholic sources.

    …Cortez were spectacularly outnumbered by professional armies.

    Cortez was supported and aided by the native peoples that he actively recruited along the way. They were easy to recruit as they were not particularly happy to be under the thumb of the Aztecs. Sans these allies and it is unlikely that either he or his men would have escaped the bloody pitched battle at Tenochtitlan.

  79. Thank goodness I can now condemn Mohammad for promoting slavery! as well as every other culture on the planet at the time until whitie made the first efforts to abolish it!

    Now, let us praise Columbus for beginning the sugar industry in the Americas. That real sugar that Radley likes, not the HFKS(?) that he hates.

    BTW, beet sugar is not chemically distinguishable from cane sugar.

  80. Here’s an interesting piece of recent news:

    “LONDON (Reuters) – Hair samples taken from child mummies suggest the ancient Incas “fattened” up children chosen for ritual sacrifice months before actually killing them, British researchers said on Monday. . . .

    “The researchers do not know exactly how all the children died, though at least one was killed by a blow to the head.

    “‘It looks to us as though the children were led up to the summit shrine in the culmination of a year-long rite, drugged and then left to succumb to exposure,’ said Timothy Taylor, a researcher at the University of Bradford.”

    http://tinyurl.com/3yhr98

  81. Columbus and the Native Americans were barbarous and enslavers…one beat the other and history was made.

    I am sure glad they are all dead

    Joshua, the Native Americans are not all dead. (And I don’t think they were all barbarous and enslavers–it’s amusing to see how quickly some commenters on this libertarian blog sink into collectivism when it suits them.)

  82. ambles on by. looks at some of the fearful fragile types. Sighs at them in pity. Sees something shiny, snorts happily, and returns to the wooded grove


  83. The Spanish weren’t just “lucky” with their encounters with Native American Civilizations.

    no, i’d say lucky is an adequate description of their adventures with the mexica. had the aztec regime not been so brutal with the surrounding states, and had monteczuma 2 not been such a self-absorbed pussbunny, the original uprising would have gone down in flames.

  84. Jess,
    Since we are talking about reading too much into other people’s comments, I never said that the Americas would not have been open to colonization without Columbus. To a degree, it is just an arbitrary day, but what other day would we have? The day the first enlightened European person colonized? (Note, I only mention this since you felt it necessary to comment on the nature of Columbus in your reply to me, when I referenced only the landing)

    Sir commenter,
    Columbus Day refers to the day of the landing, October 12 1492, not the birthday of Columbus.

  85. The day the first enlightened European person colonized?

    LEIF ERICSSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  86. Jesse, sorry about the “Jess” typo

  87. The link provided up yonder by S of S convinces me that Columbus, even by the standards of his own time and culture (even allowing that things were more crude and violent back then), was indeed a douchebag.

    I hereby move that we continue to observe Columbus Day, but rename it El Dia de la Douchebag, to keep everyone happy.

  88. Not to mention, “Everyone was Doing It” is factually incorrect.

    There was no slavery in Spain. There was no slavery in Italy. There was no slavery in the Carribean.

    Columbus was a PIONEER in the development of the slave economy.

  89. But, hey…hippies, huh?

    It’s the same reason we have to keep drugs illegal – to show them hippies who’s boss!

  90. Granted, slavery has been practiced all over the world, including by the native peoples of the Americas. But the chattel slavery employed by European whites in the Americas, and pioneered by Columbus, was about the most brutal form of slavery in all of recorded history. So even if “everyone else was doing it” was a defense (which it isn’t), Columbus went out of his way to make things worse, not better.

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