The Christopher Columbus Controversy: Western Civilization vs. Primitivism
by Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D.
Executive Director, The Ayn Rand Institute
To the "politically correct," the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus was no cause for celebration. The 500th anniversary of that momentous event was met with an outpouring of hatred for Columbus and a glorification of the American Indian. As a result of anti-Columbus protests, an Indian was named co-grand marshal of the 1992 Rose Parade (along with a descendant of Columbus), "ethnic diversity days" replaced Columbus Day on many cities, and our college campuses witnessed an orgy of rallies, speeches, and seminars putting Columbus in his "rightful historical perspective," i.e., an arch villain. The actual target of these critics was not Christopher Columbus himself; rather, it was Western Civilization.
The politically correct view is that Columbus did not discover America, because people had lived here for thousands of years. Worse yet, it's claimed, the main legacy of Columbus is death and destruction. Pasadena's then vice-mayor, Rick Cole, branded Columbus's descendant "a symbol of greed, slavery, rape, and genocide." And one Indian leader likened the celebration of Columbus's arrival to a celebration of Hitler and the Holocaust.
Did Columbus "discover" America? Yes--in every important respect. This does not mean that no human eye had been cast on America before Columbus arrived. It does mean that he brought America to the attention of the civilized world, i.e., to the growing, scientific civilizations of Western Europe. The result, ultimately, was the United States of America. It was Columbus's discovery for Western Europe that led to the influx of ideas and people on which this nation was founded--and on which it still rests. The opening of America brought the ideas and achievements of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and the thousands of thinkers, writers, and inventors who followed. What they replaced was a way of life dominated by fatalism, passivity, superstition, and magic.
Prior to 1492, what is now the United States was sparsely inhabited, unused, and undeveloped. The inhabitants were primarily hunter/gatherers, wandering across the land, living from hand to mouth and from day to day. There was virtually no change, no growth for thousands of years. With rare exceptions, life was nasty, brutish, and short: there was no wheel, no written language, no division of labor, little agriculture and scant permanent settlement: but there were endless, bloody wars. Whatever the problems it brought, the vilified Western culture also brought enormous, un-dreamed-of benefits, without which most of today's Indians would be definitely poorer or not even alive.
The particular actions of Columbus and his men are irrelevant to the current controversy: Columbus should be honored, for in so doing, we honor Western civilization. But the critics do not want to bestow such honor, and this is the real reason for the opposition to Columbus as the discoverer of America. Their real goal is to denigrate the values of Western civilization and to glorify the primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism embodied in the tribal cultures of American Indians. They decry the glorification of the West as "Eurocentrism." We should, they claim, replace our reverence for Western civilization with multiculturalism, which regards all cultures as morally equal. In fact, they aren't.
Some cultures are better than others: a free society is better than slavery; reason is better than brute force as a way to deal with other men; productivity is better than stagnation and unthinking adherence to tradition. In fact, Western civilization stands for man at his best. It stands for the values that make human life possible: reason, science, self reliance, individualism, ambition, productive achievement. The values of Western civilization are values for all men; they cut across gender, ethnicity, and geography. We should honor Western civilization not for the ethnocentric reason that some of us happen to have European ancestors but because it is the objectively superior culture.
Underlying the political collectivism of the anti-Columbus crowd is a racist view of human nature. They claim that one's identity is primarily ethnic: if one thinks his ancestors were good, he will supposedly feel good about himself; if he thinks his ancestors were bad, he will supposedly feel self-loathing. But it doesn't work; the achievements or failures of one's ancestors are monumentally irrelevant to one's actual worth as a person. Only the lack of a sense of self leads one to look to others to provide what passes for a sense of identity. Neither the deeds nor misdeeds of others are his own; he can take neither credit nor blame for what someone else chose to do. There are no racial achievements or racial failures, only individual achievements and individual failures. One cannot inherit moral worth or moral vice. "Self esteem through others" is a self-contradiction.
Thus the sham of "preserving one's heritage" as a rational value. Thus the cruel hoax of "multicultural education" as an antidote to racism: it will continue to create even more racism. As Ayn Rand observed in her article "Global Balkanization" (in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought), "the advocacy of ethnicity means racism plus tradition--i.e., racism plus conformity...There is no surer way to infect mankind with hatred--brute, blind, virulent hatred--than by splitting it into ethnic groups or tribes."
The immigrants who built this country in the 18th and 19th centuries came here not to wallow in ethnic pride not to mindlessly repeat the ways of their ancestors. They embraced the essence of Western civilization. They were--at least implicitly--individualists.
Individualism is the only alternative to the racism of political correctness. We must recognize that everyone is a sovereign entity, with the power of choice and independent judgment. The values of self-esteem and Western civilization should be proudly proclaimed.
Copyright 7#169; 1993 The Ayn Rand Institute. All rights reserved.
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