In late August, the Los Angeles city council voted to end the city’s celebration of Columbus Day. That same week, across the continent, a furor was foaming over the fact that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio was considering taking down the iconic statue of Columbus atop a pillar in the circle near Central Park that bears his name. In response, city councilman and CNN personality Joe Borelli held a rally at New York’s City Hall in defense of the Columbus statue. It was a small but remarkable event.
The rally didn’t attract thousands, it wasn’t counter-protested by peaceful or antifa leftists. It was basically a press conference for local officials opposed to the removal of the statue. But something stood out, something rare in the raging wars of identity politics. The Italo-American politicians, and their guests, including the comedian and radio host Joe Piscocopo weren’t making apologies for Columbus. They weren’t stipulating that he was a horrible Hitleresque atrocity of a man. They still think he’s a hero.
The Confederate statue debate is now centered on historical relevancy and physical links to the past. Twenty-five years ago there were historians arguing that Robert Lee and Jefferson Davis were honorable men caught up in a struggle for dishonorable ends. Few people argue that anymore. The Confederates have been rightly demonized as traitors who tried to destroy the world’s only true democracy because they wanted to own human beings. Columbus was a different kind of man, in a complex situation, and cannot be dismissed so easily.
It was Democratic City Councilman and current candidate for Brooklyn District Attorney, Vinnie Gentile, who said, “Columbus was an explorer, who had to be a warrior.” Other speakers talked of revisionist history, and the tarring of the great son of Italy chosen as the symbol of that people in the New World. They feel no shame for revering the man who made the New World.
And why should they? The idea that Columbus landed in an Eden of peace and tranquility is fantastical nonsense. He found warring factions, some of which fought him and some of which aided him. Was he a belligerent buzz saw of brutality? Sure. So were his opponents, who weren’t the utopian keepers peaceful life they are portrayed to be. Columbus got a fight. He punched back harder.
The earliest celebration of Columbus in North America took place in in 1792. A newly formed New York City government called Tammany celebrated the 300th anniversary of his discovery of America. Eight years earlier, the Manhattan college formerly known as Kings College had been renamed, Columbia. This happened before many people who actually were Italian became residents of the world’s first constitutional democracy, and it greatest city. One hundred years later, Italians would begin to pour through Ellis Island like water drained through pasta. By 1900, Italians were becoming a fixture in the United States.
These Italian immigrants weren’t greeted warmly. In the 1890s, a group of Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans. Few Italian Americans today would suggest that they faced greater bigotry than blacks have. But, the lynching happened, and it is a part of our country’s dark history of racial resentment. In the wake of this bigoted violence, Il Progresso, the leading Italian language newspaper of the time in New York City, began a campaign to raise money for a statue of Columbus, as a gift to the city, and a symbol of Italian Americans’ dedication to be good citizens.
It worked: Small dollar donations led to an image of Columbus towering over the city. Italian immigrants chose Columbus as their avatar for good reasons. Not only was he a great man, who had inaugurated the trade between the New and Old World, he was a founding father of America. Only the Norwegians with Leif Erickson had a similar figure, but he was a tourist, not a man who changed the course of history.
Columbus is mocked for not knowing what he found, for bad math and worse geography. But he stepped on the moon. And, unlike NASA and all our good intentions of getting out into space, he made his moon accessible. It actually was a great step for mankind. It was a step that eventually led to the leap of human rights, democracy, and freedom. Did it lead to genocide? No. What we now know is that the diseases carried by Europeans were destined to decimate native populations, regardless of intention. It’s a brutal accident of history.
Do Italians Control Columbus?
For better or worse we live in an age where cultural appropriation must be considered. Columbus, and more importantly, Italian Americans, hold a strange place in this conversation. Who is ethnic? Who is other? As it turns out, this isn’t a new question. Werner Sollors dealt it with deftly, in 1986. In his seminal book, Beyond Ethnicity, he writes the following:
Two conflicting uses of “ethnic” and “ethnicity” have remained in the air. According to Everett and Helen Hughes “We are all ethnic” (Where 7), and in E.K. Francis’s terminology of 1947, “not only the ethnic French Canadians or the Pennsylvania Dutch would be ethnic groups, but also the French of France and the Irish of Ireland.” (395). But this universalist and inclusive use is in frequent conflict with the other use of the word, which excludes dominant groups and thus establishes an “ethnicity minus one.”
Sollors wrote this two years before Peggy McIntosh would pen Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack and usher in the age of privilege theory. This concept of privilege would come to define the “minus one” as essentially white culture. While cultures that faced oppression from white culture may jealously guard their own output and history, white culture itself is a non-ethnic baseline to be shared and controlled by all. But this arrangement, which carries a lot of water in ethnic studies programs at fine universities, does not go over so well in South Philadelphia’s Italian Market. Put simply, many Italians do not view their heritage as simply a part of the hodgepodge of universal whiteness, but rather as a distinct and proud ethnicity all its own.
Nazis, Confederates, and white nationalists are historical dunnage that white Americans will throw overboard to keep the ship of state afloat. Columbus is precious cargo and many Italian Americans and their allies will go down with the ship to protect him and his cultural legacy. This provides us with a unique historical moment in which to reconsider the efficacy of “ethnicity minus one.”
For 30 years privilege theory has guided us away from the concept of the melting pot. Our focus has been set on valuing differences, not seeing commonalities. Not only has the result been stark political conflict, but basic disagreements about our culture’s historical narrative. For some of us America is a disgrace, a racist kleptocracy built on blood and bondage, for others, it is the great hope of the world, where mean conditions can be overcome through hard work.
Christopher Columbus is a fitting figure for this fight. It was his voyage that set in motion 500 years of conflict and creation between the Old world and the New. As Italian Americans dig in their heels to resist the destruction of their greatest icon, there is an opportunity to bridge the narrative divide that is crippling our nation. Taking down Columbus’ statue cannot change the past, but entering into a frank and forthright conversation about the ills and good that his discoveries led to, can go a long way to improving our future. Hopefully, that conversation is just beginning.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard