Mitchell’s Musings 10-16-17: Goodbye Columbus?

11 Oct 2017 6:02 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 10-16-17: Goodbye Columbus?


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


As readers will probably know by now, the Los Angeles City Council and then the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. There were protests from Italian-American groups that consider Columbus to be an Italian hero.[1] (The Council set the next day as a holiday – although not one which gave anyone a day off – as a day in honor of Italian-Americans.) And there were op-ed rationales for the change presented, including one by a UC-Riverside faculty member.[2] The rationales offered were good. So was there any reason not to do it?


There was a special local problem. On the grounds of the downtown “Great Park” in LA, which is surrounded by civic buildings of the City and County, there is a statue of Columbus, as this photo taken by yours truly on Sunday, October 8 shows:

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But the following day (the former Columbus Day), the statue was found by a local TV station to be surrounded by a chain-link fence and covered with paper:

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No one in an official position was saying who ordered the fencing and papering or whether it was done to protect the statue from vandalism (as has occurred elsewhere in the country to Columbus statues), or instead to protect the powers-that-be from embarrassment over the inconsistency.[3]


And lest you think these events have nothing to do with Donald Trump and his controversy over statues, let me quickly disabuse of that notion. There is a connection, whether it was intended or not, between Charlottesville, Civil War statues of confederate “heroes,” and the LA decisions about Columbus.

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The president had previously defended the “Unite the Right” demonstrators of Charlottesville on the grounds that they were just defending historical monuments and that, if the confederates go, the next would be George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, presumably because they were slave-owners. This charge was derided by historians as implausible because Washington and Jefferson, aside from owning slaves, did important things in founding the nation. Those important things, it was asserted, would override the slave-owning and protect their statues.[4]


So here’s the problem. Columbus is primarily known in the U.S. as an explorer who, given the primitive navigation technology of the time, performed an amazing feat that ultimately – centuries later – was important in founding the nation. But now his holiday is being renamed – contrary to the Washington/Jefferson argument - and his statue is being papered over (and likely will be removed). So the Columbus issue plays directly into the hands of right and the claim of the president.


There is one Marist public opinion poll that suggests that there exists general support for the Columbus holiday.[5] Of course, that poll was commissioned by – who else? – the Knights of Columbus.[6] So you can discount the results, if you like. But there is no doubt that changing the holiday, or removing the statue, reinforces a right-wing narrative of an overly-sensitive left and its excessive political correctness. Furthermore, as noted, it makes real the question of whether Washington and Jefferson are next. Is being the commanding general in the Revolutionary War and the first president enough to keep a statue? Is being primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president enough?[7]


The LA decision has certainly sparked a predictable response from right-wing media:

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In short, while the LA decision has little political consequence in the immediate area, in other parts of the country, there could be consequences. Now you can argue that LA should “do the right thing” and not worry about external fallout. Or you can argue that even considering the negative fallout, the decision to change the name (and probably remove the statue) should be made. But my sense is that the question of any larger external impact or of timing wasn’t even considered.


Nowadays, many public projects require an Environmental Impact Statement. The idea behind such statements is to include recognition of larger external negative effects that policy makers might otherwise neglect before decisions are made. There are Senate seats up for grabs in 2018. There are House seats in marginal districts, including seats in California, which could go one way or another. It would be nice if sometimes Political Impact Statements were required on public policies to force similar recognition of wider externalities.


Footnotes:

[1] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-italians-columbus-la-20171008-story.html.

[2] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hackel-columbus-day-california-settlers-indigeous-peoples-20171009-story.html

[3] http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2017/10/09/christopher-columbus-statue-covered-on-first-indigenous-peoples-day/.  

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/16/historians-no-mr-president-washington-and-jefferson-are-not-the-same-as-confederate-generals/

[5] http://www.kofc.org/un/en/resources/communications/americans-support-columbus-day.pdf.  

The Knights of Columbus pushed for adoption of Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1934, although earlier versions existed. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/us/columbus-day-protest.html.  

[7] Note that among the “usurpations” of King George listed in the Declaration of Independence is this problematic statement: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

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