This is a follow-up to a column Odd Man Out wrote last summer.
A bizarre psychodrama was unfolding in South Philadelphia while Swamp Rabbit and I worked a dull sales event in the suburbs. Hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate Columbus Day with a parade near the statue of Christopher Columbus that stands on Marconi Plaza. But the Columbus statue was encased in a plywood box and confined behind a metal fence, as it has been since last summer. Someone had hung a “Free Chris” sign on the fence.
Like I said, bizarre.
I showed Swamp Rabbit a newspaper account to bring him up to speed on the years-long fight to remove the statue of Columbus, a hero to many Italian-Americans and a villain to activists who cite evidence that he played a central role in the killing, mutilation or enslavement of large numbers of Indigenous people. Bowing to pressure from the activists, city officials earlier this year canceled Columbus Day. From now on, the holiday on the second Monday of October will be called Indigenous People’s Day. Columbus remains in solitary confinement. His fans are not happy.
“I don’t blame ’em,” Swamp Rabbit said. “The guy discovered America, and so what if it was by accident? He had a lot of guts, sailing into the unknown and all that. The city should give him his due.”
“He didn’t discover America,” I replied. “He confirmed its existence for Europeans. And so what if he had a lot of guts? Stalin had guts, too. Should the world celebrate a Joe Stalin Day?”
But I was being too glib. The Columbus Day cancellation is still being disputed in court, and the dispute will never really end because it’s rooted in a moral dilemma. Why should city officials single out Columbus when so many other revered historical figures are guilty of similar crimes?
A Columbus fan at Marconi Plaza told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the famed explorer was “not the monster everyone has made him out of be.” This is exactly wrong; Columbus was the first of many European adventurers who, in their lust for gold and glory, sparked a genocidal effort to replace Native Americans with Europeans.
But the fan made a sensible suggestion: Why not take the lid off the statue, leave it where it’s at, and add a display that lists the explorer’s transgressions but also explains that his voyages set in motion a mass migration to the “New World” of millions of people who would have endured a bleak future in overcrowded Europe?
Swamp Rabbit agreed. “We wouldn’t be in this here country if it weren’t for Columbus,” he said. “Besides, he ain’t no worse than Thomas Jefferson and them other rich white guys who preached equality but kept slaves.”
He was saying that history is a lot like marketing. It’s almost always written by or for the victors, whose natural instinct is to downplay the great crimes they committed while building their empires. They can’t sell their myths to the masses unless they leave out or distort information that would cast them in a bad light.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with myths,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Them Italiano-Americans need their heroes, just like us. You take away Columbus and who’s left? Next thing you know them activists will be knockin’ down statues of Rocky Balboa.”
Oh no, anything but that. I repeated what I said last year: “Sometimes the revisionists go too far.”