Politics & Policy

Take Back Columbus Day

Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn (via Architect of the Capitol)
The ideologues who have been dismantling the American identity will be stopped only if we fight back.

The effort to deconstruct America’s identity continues apace. Seattle has abolished Columbus Day. So has Minneapolis. So has South Dakota.

And not just abolished it neutrally, but replaced it with something intended to be understood as its opposite: an “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” (or, in South Dakota, “Native Americans Day”). It amounts to declaring officially — or rather, implying officially, since it would not be safe for politicians to say openly what the theorists of this deconstruction say — that our American society, which Europeans built on the heels of Columbus’s voyage, is fundamentally wrong and needs to be replaced by its “Other.”

Shame on Seattle. And on Minneapolis. And on South Dakota. Shame on their politicians and elites, who did the deed. Shame on their citizens, who voted for the politicians and who have not stood up to them when they proceeded to thumb their noses at America.

Is there any honor in all this shame? Yes. Honor to the Italian Americans of Seattle! They alone stood up to this travesty.

But, honestly, even they deserve just a half-honor. They did not stand up as Americans; they stood up as another ethnic minority, demanding appreciation for the special Italian contribution to America through their native son Columbus. They tried to be broad-minded about it and agree to have an Indigenous Peoples’ Day too, as long as they kept Columbus Day for themselves. But they asked nothing to honor the roots and identity of America per se. That, apparently, would have required too much courage. Only minority groups are supposed to need recognition nowadays.

It means that no one stood up for what Columbus Day is actually about. No one.

“But what, then” — the lady asketh – “is it that this Columbus Day is in fact about?” It is about reminding ourselves of the fundaments of who we are and where we come from. It is about honoring a pivotal moment in our history and about remembering our history accurately — a history that traces back far beyond 1776 to 1492. And back beyond that, too.

Our history, traced backwards, starts with the career of the United States proper since 1783. Next, the history of Britain together with British colonial America, starting in 1607: a successful colonial expansion of the existing European society, a British supplanting of the Spanish and Catholic empires as the leading force outside Europe, a Glorious Revolution empowering Parliament, a Bill of Rights, an Anglo-Scottish Union, an Anglo-American separation. Before that, the long history of Britain and Europe: Elizabethan England; failed colonization attempts; Renaissance and Reformation; emergence of modern science; explorations of the Atlantic and the world. Columbus is like the sliver at the middle of our historical hourglass: The entire history of Europe funnels through it, then opens up wide again on the American side of the ocean. Still earlier, the Magna Carta. The emergence of Parliament. The Middle Ages. The congealing of England and other European societies after the disintegration of Rome.

And here, finally, we come to the actual crystallization of the society that lives on today in America and Europe: Before that society congealed, there were sharp discontinuities. Disparate roots came together to form our new society; after that, our society evolved relatively continuously, over a span of more than 1,500 years.

This history is the plain truth of the history of our society, in outline form. One can love it or hate it, but either way, it gives us our authentic identity.

The political classes in Seattle and Minneapolis evidently are among those who are prone to hate it. They have joined hands with the activists who make it their profession to deconstruct America’s history and identity. They tell us that we should celebrate the Native Americans as co-shapers of our society, in place of celebrating the actual shapers — or more accurately, transmitters — of our society.

Elsewhere across the country, the dismantling of our identity has been less flamboyant but no less real. It proceeds unrelentingly in our universities, in our media, and in our public education, where the minds of our people are formed.

The proponents of deconstructing America are not to be underestimated. They have been brought up to think they and their ideological kind are “the good people.” It is what they have heard nearly all their lives, in the media and in the schools, and truly do not know any better. Their efforts at dismantling society are not a passing mood, or a mistake. There is no point at which they will say “enough.” They will continue on their course — most of them — to the end.

They will be stopped only if others fight back: people who affirm their society and know what they are affirming and who have a strategy to restore society’s identity and put it back on a self-replicating, self-adapting, self-sustaining basis.

It is not enough to fight back in defensive ways, resisting the deconstruction in an ever-rearguard battle, making concessions at each step. Or to reluctantly give up one hard truth of our history and identity after another, after it has been turned by the Politically Correct into an object of public scorn and hate and rendered impossible to affirm without bringing scorn and hate down on oneself as well. Or by compensating for these historical losses by redoubling the emphasis on superficial patriotic themes that the Politically Correct can also agree on.

The latter tactic — putting aside the fundamental facts of who were are and how we came to be, after they have been made too controversial and odious; limiting our history to things that can be affirmed patriotically without facing Politically Correct attack (yet) — is one that is often used by patriotic Americans. It is seen on the part of politicians, historians, journalists, and teachers alike. By emphasizing points that the Politically Correct censors can sign on to as well, in a language they share, it is possible to form a tactical symbiosis of Left and Right and for patriots to come out feeling that they have not lost. Even the neoconservatives, who on many matters are strategically minded, have been prone to fall into this shortsighted tactic, thanks to their overemphasis on a uniquely American universal idealism — and their underemphasis on the common history and achievements of Western civilization.

This tactic is ever ready as a maneuver that deflects the attack, and it often seems to succeed on that level. But strategically, it invariably turns into a defeat. It adds another chapter to the cumulative retreat from our history and identity.

How does this defeat play out? The Politically Correct, who have a strong sense of where they are going and are perpetually preparing the public grounds for new attacks, and the patriots who do not, reach a compromise on a simplified, universalistic-sounding presentation of our history. Patriots can even feel that they have better than stood their ground and slipped one past the Politically Correct, in areas where it gives something of a patriotic prettification of our history.

And so they present our society, Left and Right alike, as if it started with the Declaration of Independence and as if it were defined by, or founded on, the principles of the Declaration. Mostly the principle that “all men are created equal,” ever ready for the next assault against the imperfections of any real society and history. Also the justification for Revolution, useful to revolutionaries of all stripes, but mainly to the professional revolutionaries of the Left.

This can seem like an appealing solution. It heads off the frontal assault on America’s self-affirmation. It provides a sense of restoring a kind of consensus patriotism. There is a moment of good feeling.

But then its substantive meaning kicks in — the further denial of our actual history and society. The next attack is already in preparation, with one more consensus falsehood in place to help it along, one less cornerstone of truth in place to resist it.

Our actual history is the history of a concrete society, one that existed for centuries before the 1776 Declaration. It is not reducible to any single document or any single principle. It has made its progress over the centuries by concrete efforts, weighing its principles prudently at every juncture, implementing them by the steps that seem best advised at each moment.

It is this history, this dedication to the concrete society, that the patriotic brand of Political Correctness gives up in favor of a supposed dedication to a single document and, often, a single principle. That is what the patriotic-sounding compromise means.

It also means a further divorcing of America from its European roots. Not for nothing does deconstructionism — the theory behind PC — propose to eliminate America’s “Eurocentrism,” which is to say, America’s actual roots and reality, and to transform every bit and piece of America — including its very citizenry — around the one principle for which it allows a “foundational” status: that all people are created equal. In this patriotic-sounding compromise, “America” survives as a symbol and a Principle, but America’s concrete substance is emptied out and is condemned by it to get expunged root and branch, in the name of the Principle.

Accordingly, this means also: giving up the unconditional commitment to our concrete society — the commitment that is essential for any society to sustain itself. It reduces the commitment instead to a conditional one, based on how well America adheres to “the principle.” The Politically Correct sector inevitably predominates in determining, on the public airwaves, what has to be done in order for America to pass muster as adhering to its principles. We know what its criteria are: the actual, “Eurocentric” America must go. Carthago delenda est.

It is on no small scale that America is the loser in this.

A word on a basic definition here. What is America?

America (n.) — the concrete society whose political name is ‘The United States of America.’ It consists of a concrete body of citizens, concrete institutions public and private, concrete laws and habits and ways of interaction, and concrete assets and territory. It has a central nervous system of knowledge institutions, through which news and thoughts flow, and has patterns of thoughts and beliefs. It has a continuous concrete history and has had an unbroken awareness of its history and of its concrete existence, making it a self-conscious entity with moral agency and with a collective identity. It has additional, competing identity-concepts among its subcultures, some of them continuing its thread of unbroken self-awareness, others opposing it or deleting major portions of it.

This concrete society has principles, but it is not its principles. It has in fact a multitude of principles, which it has developed and refined over the centuries. The principles belong to society (“in principle” to all societies), not society to the principles, and must be compromised wisely with one another when they conflict with one another. The great rabbis, Hillel and Jesus, made this point when they discussed the principle of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath is made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath.” The principle was to be compromised when it ran into other principles, such as healing the sick or saving a life. The same applies with even clearer force to the less-than-divine, and therefore non-absolute, principles of secular society. Deification of a principle is an unsupportable move in logic, and a harmful move in real life.

Our society was formed over the centuries, indeed millennia, not in a single founding moment such as 1776, which was a reconfiguration of the society’s governments, not a founding of the society. There is no one original founding purpose, no singular founding principle. There is, rather, a gradual improvement of purposes and principles as the society has progressed out of the primordial mud, including considerable improvements over 1776, when the slave trade was opposed but not slavery itself.

America’s modern proclaimed principles are universal principles, yet America is a particular society. The particular society — its security and thriving — is essential for its universal principles. Without it, the principles would lose their base of operations in the world.

America’s uniqueness consists in the confluence of three facts: the fact that the West has developed the universal human principles further, and integrated them into its concrete particular society more successfully, than the other societies of the world; the fact that the West leads the world; and the fact that America is the organizing power that has drawn the West together and leads it.

The universal principles are given concrete life through Western society (and to a considerable extent also through allied westernized societies such as Japan), rather than subsisting as mere disembodied ideas. America is the strongest among the societies that have successfully integrated the modern universal principles with their traditional concrete societies. It has brought these societies together into a loose confederacy that qualifies the group as a concrete meta-national society. The world gains coherence and a mostly shared orientation — toward eventual universal concretization of the modern principles — thanks to this global leadership from the Western group, and thanks to America’s role in turn as the integrator that lends coherence and effectiveness to the Western group.

This is an important, unique role. It makes America truly exceptional and indispensable. But its exceptionalism is often oversimplified, with self-damaging consequences. Neglect of America’s concrete integrative role in the meta-Western society has at times led America to undermine its actual global leadership role, in the very name of exercising its leadership. Neglect of the concrete particularity of American society, as a solid base area for the eventual global success of its universal principles, has led to sacrificing the security requirements of this basing area for the sake of a mad dash for universalizing one of its principles. This is seen in the disastrous American insistence on holding elections across the Mideast in the last dozen years and in the media’s and administration’s belief that it is necessary to promote elections especially where it clashes with our interests, in order to prove that we’re not hypocrites with our democracy advocacy. No double standards, they say; just a single — and narrowly single-minded — principle.

Historically, our society has handled its multiple principles the opposite way: by weighing them prudently against one another and by including, as one of its main principles, its own concrete growth and survival interests.

The reduction of America to a single principle means, by contrast: implementing the single principle totally, immediately, everywhere. Treating such implementation as a moral test — a precondition — for whether the concrete American society will get one’s support. And saying, as Democrats have repeatedly said from Leahy to Obama to the mass media, that “America would cease to be America” if it failed this or that test of principle.

America in reality never ceased to be America by compromising prudently among its principles. It has nearly always so compromised in its history, at least before the PC era. Its liberties have always endured its compromises during wars and emergencies. And those compromises were far more severe in the Revolutionary War than in the PC era, when ignorant ideologists started complaining that we were betraying our Founders’ pristine, pure principles.

One of the few ways America really could cease to be America is by losing a global struggle, e.g. to the old militant Communism or to the new militant Islamism; or by failing to get control over an emergency such as an epidemic. That risk seemed to fade after 1991, but it has returned. The attitude of treating America as a principle rather than a country compounds the risk considerably.

Fanaticism is itself a threat to America’s remaining America, in contrast to prudence. America really could cease to be America if it oversimplifies its complex of principles to the point of adhering to one or a few of them fanatically, at the expense of the others and of its practical survival needs. As the deconstructive ideology spreads, this risk keeps growing.

For now, America is still America. The concrete America. The America to which we owe concrete loyalty. The America whose history Columbus Day is there to remind us of, and to affirm.

And that is the underlying reason why Columbus Day has become a public focal point for the attack on America.

It is time to develop a strategy for taking back Columbus Day and for using this as a stepping-stone to taking back the entirety of our history and identity.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.


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