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Columbus Day: Melodrama or Tragedy?

Campuses and Western critics in the last half-century have turned a once risk-taking and heroic Christopher Columbus into an evil emissary of disease and destruction. History is now seen as one-dimensional melodrama in which our contemporary duty is to pick sinners and saints of the past based on our own modern (quite imperfect) perceptions of morality and then judge them worthy of either hagiography or banishment from memory — rather than history as tragedy in which various agendas are often far more complex than just evil versus good.

In the so-called Columbus exchange, true, diseases were inadvertently brought into the New World by rapacious explorers and grasping settlers who followed Columbus that killed millions, but then so were horses, wheat, and rice, which enhanced the human condition. If history is to be reduced to a tit-for-tat scorecard, who can calibrate the good of the imported New World potato and tomato versus the bad of New World tobacco, cocaine, and, most likely, syphilis that would go on to kill and maim hundreds of millions? Without the fertility, climate, and access of the New World, Old World sugar, in small amounts previously imported from India, would have still remained a relative expensive rarity in the West; after Columbus, it would become a staple, with all its lethal results.

Certainly, inherent in the Columbus narrative is now a one-sided anti-Western bias, in which Columbus is demonized for epidemics that followed in a way that, say, the advancing Mongols of the 14th century are not censored as the importers of the plague to Europe that killed more Westerners than any single event until World War II.

Columbus left a continent in which, as elsewhere in the world, religious persecution, slavery, and civil wars were commonplace — and found mostly the same in the New World; the difference in destruction was largely one of scale that hinged on demography and smaller New World populations. Otherwise, the organization and efficacy of religiously driven human sacrifices of Aztec prisoners and subjects sometimes had a proto-Auschwitzean nature about them — but without dissident voices and opposition.

So, what did Columbus accomplish? If demography was destiny, he found a New World in which, to take one later example, North America was by European standards largely underpopulated and his successors opened it to exploration and settlement from a continent whose cities were sometimes 100 times more densely populated. Whereas Europeans had the ability to navigate around the world, indigenous people tragically did not. The logical result was that the more technologically advanced, poor, and overpopulated were going to seek out the naturally rich and sparsely settled, not out of evil per se, but out of collective individual desires to survive and prosper. Both tragedy and civilization followed.

It is fashionable to trash the civilization that created Columbus as destructive and pathological, but those who do so often have never experienced the alternative first-hand or at length, and assume that their own prosperity, security, and protected freedoms are birthrights rather than fragilities that exist largely only in the West and Westernized Asia or emanate only from the Western anomalies of self-criticism, secular rationalism, unfettered inquiry, free expression, constitutional government, free-market economics, private property and religious tolerance.

Today, millions from often premodern conditions in Africa and in southern Mexico and Central America vote with their feet to seek out Europe and the United States, not because it is perfect or they like the West, but because they believe it is potentially advantageous for them in a way their own familiar landscapes and environments have proven quite disadvantageous. In my own environs, Mexican flags and Aztec statuary are quite commonly on display as proof of indigenous credibility, but the real emotion arises at any hint that the border might be closed and pathways into the United States and all that it is and represents, might be curtailed. In some strange reductionist and iconic way, the symbolic world of the Aztecs is romanticized — and left far behind; the world of Columbus is still demonized but constantly sought out. History is ironic and tragic, not a modern melodramatic morality tale.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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