Ordinarily, I’m proud to be an American, but these days, not so much. Regarding Columbus Day, I suggested taking the high road and path of good sense by creating an entirely new, well-deserved Indigenous Peoples Day instead of smearing all Italians by attributing genocide to one man.
I offered a modest resolution, and proposed we think this through. In response, a reader from my beloved hometown of Princeton, N.J., glibly pointed out that Christopher Columbus was a vicious colonizer. To which I say this:
While Columbus is no hero in my book, this is also Italian Heritage Day. Regardless, there is no shortage of self-righteous, anti-Italian, scapegoating bigots out there. Before mounting a proverbial high horse, let’s revisit history, along with our own souls, and attempt to evolve.
All colonizers were brutal at best, including inbred royalty that sent them from all over Europe. Our English ancestors were vicious colonizers around the world, a historically documented fact to which we turn a blind eye.
Taking the day off for Washington’s birthday, a federal holiday? That revered icon owned 124 slaves. Shall we make that Indigenous Peoples Day? Princeton’s own John Witherspoon, who lectured on morals and ethics when he ran the college, had two slaves at the time of his death. What makes these Founding Fathers sacrosanct?
I ask, who have we become? How do we take the high road, ignore injustices elsewhere and cherry-pick justice everywhere when history is fraught with metaphoric as well as literal land mines and walls? Truth is certainly a starting point for rebuilding any society, especially where silence is a default strategy.
I care when Jewish friends denigrate Jewish Voice for Peace for speaking out against settlers' expansion of Israel, branding criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as anti-Semitic while debating apartheid as if it were biblical manifest destiny. This smack of censorship often shuts down discourse (a proud Jewish tradition), and censorship breeds resentment. Complicated issues spanning thousands of years are too critical to descend into holy hell for lack of diplomacy. Meanwhile, the Trump administration abandoned the four-decade-old U.S. position that Jewish settlements are inconsistent with international law.
Make no mistake. No strangers to vicious colonizers, ancient Romans delivered their own brutal mortar mix of cultural benefits with cruel expansion across Europe centuries before “the Boot” became a nation. Farther south, Sicilians were enslaved throughout history by multiple murderous cultures, including Mussolini’s fascists.
On this continent, it wasn’t only colonizers who treated people brutally. Many of the Indigenous were vicious with their own, Aztec and Mayan among them. Iroquois hatchets struck for and against the Brits. Western tribes snatched women and children, not to mention scalps.
The list is long. Hatred spirals and bigotry begets bigotry. One might argue that all colonization begins there. Today it looms large with encouragement from the No. 1 bellicose bully in the White House. Nothing boosts sales like condemnation, right up there with book burning. Donald Trump’s Hitleresque hissy fits against The Washington Post and The New York Times boosted the circulation of both.
Our current taxes support this country’s $700 billion military budget (oh, let’s call it the “defense” budget), more than the next seven nations combined. We drop bombs from 30,000 feet and feign ignorance of innocent civilians wiped out on an altogether new scale, firing $70,000 missiles from $28 million-dollar drones to kill people living on a dollar a day.
I would laugh if it weren’t tragic, horrible injustice. As Toni Morrison said: “Evil has a blockbuster audience; goodness lurks backstage.”
Colonists have no moral compass, but it is not enough to vilify them and perpetuate mob mentality. The structure of colonialism is crumbling, along with contagious scapegoating.
Indigenous people deserve their own holiday, suitably autonomous.
Pepper Provenzano was an editor at The Salt Lake Tribune from 1980 to 2000. He lives and writes in Utah and Arizona.