Observing Columbus Day and Yom Kippur

Today is Columbus Day Observed. Actual Columbus Day coincides with Yom Kippur this year. That could not be more appropriate.

I’ve always been drawn to the sad holiday — the idea of a national day of remembrance and reflection. As a society we don’t do nearly enough reflecting, and the only way we know how to have a holiday is to take a day off and have a sale. Therefore it’s gratifying to note the few sad holidays that have survived this capitalist culture. Good Friday and Yom Kippur are still observed by the devout, but they have resisted being secularized while the non-devout happily celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. It does seem as if Memorial Day has been taken a bit more seriously in the last few years — I suppose thirteen years of continuous war will have that effect. No such luck for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, the national day of cleaning up the last few pine needles and scraps of wrapping paper off the carpet before seeing the holiday blockbuster movie you didn’t have time to see in December. The anniversary of 9/11 works as a sad holiday because the event it commemorates is in living memory and, more important, it’s not a day off — dealing with a normal workday through one’s tears is precisely the point.

Indeed, the point of all these sad holidays is remembrance and acknowledgement. So much in our culture encourages forgetting. We’re constantly told to Move Forward. This can have disturbing consequences. It took a generation before mainstream society was ready to hear about the full extent of WWII’s atrocities, and in the meantime the veterans and survivors who had borne witness to them and had no willing listeners suffered lasting psychological damage.

And we’ve forgotten how and why we need to study the bad guys. Forty years ago every Jew I knew owned a copy of Mein Kampf. The point is to know your enemy and how their mind works so you can be vigilant for signs of that pathology rising again. Meanwhile Time Magazine, which once named Hitler as Man of the Year, has given up putting bad guys on the cover of its end-of-year issue because our society has forgotten the importance of acknowledging the impact of destructive people on our lives — everything has to be a celebration, and we have to wipe the bad actors from our memories.

I’m reminded of an experiment I did several years ago while sitting near the fountain at the southwestern entrance to Central Park. There’s a big statue in the middle of the traffic circle there (which at that time was a major construction zone in order to create the Southern California-ish capitalist monstrosities that grace that area today) and, affecting my best public-radio host mode, I asked passers-by if they knew who was being memorialized by the statue. In fact, I would ask them “You see that statue in the middle of Columbus Circle? Do you know who that’s supposed to be?” Not one person could answer correctly, no matter how much I emphasized the name of the circle. A couple of people with a more intellectual mien figured it was some sort of Renaissance figure by the way the figure was dressed. One person even thought it might be an explorer: “Is it Vasco da Gama?”

Columbus has a well-deserved bad reputation which perhaps explains this blindness to his existence. No one would suggest that his star should rise again. While the word “discover” supposedly gained its modern meaning (“to find that which was previously unknown”) in 1555 specifically as a way of describing Columbus’ accomplishment, it is what we have discovered about him — like the brutal treatment (some scholars call it genocide) of the native Taino people, the original inhabitants of the Dominican Republic — that has caused justified disgust. I grew up in the city of Berkeley, California, the first city to change the holiday’s name to “Indigenous People’s Day” out of a well-intentioned desire to remember Columbus’ victims rather than his own (literal) exploits.

However, I think there may be some value in retaining Columbus Day.

While we can say that Columbus does not deserve to be lauded, what he did was significant. He did, in fact, open the floodgates for the European colonization of this continent in modern times. You can condemn that all you want, and I’ll gladly join you, but the fact is that if Columbus hadn’t done what he did the world would be a very different place and would have evolved in a very different way. In other words, if we’re glad to be who we are with the particular lineage that we possess, then we have to come to terms with the fact that we owe that particular lineage to rapists and pirates.

We all have blood on our hands. If you’re descended from a Russian Jew who was raped by a Cossack or a slave who was raped by her master, then our immediate impulse is to claim the victim of that crime as our ancestor. We seem to forget that the perpetrator of that crime is also our ancestor.

Many people have good reasons to reject their parents — they might have been abusive, dishonest, or criminally irresponsible. But if we appreciate being alive and being the person we are we have to acknowledge, however reluctantly, that we owe them a measure of gratitude; we try to create a legacy of what was good about our parents while weeding out what we find objectionable. And if our parents did something truly hideous, then we have a responsibility to own our legacy and endeavor to make up for the damage done by our parents in the act of begetting us by living our own lives with integrity.

We can hate Columbus, but we wouldn’t be who we are if he hadn’t committed his crimes. So I suggest that Columbus Day become a sort of secular Yom Kippur — a universal day of atonement in which we acknowledge our bloodstained pasts, the fact that we are all part rapist and pirate. We need another sad holiday, and having a day in which we all acknowledge our conquerer’s privilege seems necessary and valuable.

Meanwhile, I would suggest Thanksgiving as a better candidate for transformation of an existing holiday into Indigenous People’s Day. Columbus Day, his name right out there for all of us to see, can be when we study who this man was and what his mission was that put humanity on its course of colonialism — the day when we understand and own the extent to which we still participate in the exploitation of others for our own gain, a day of education, contrition and acknowledging humanity’s common inhumanity. And yes, we can also spend that day studying defeated tribes like the Taino and understand just what it was we lost when their people and culture was destroyed. Whereas a true Indigenous People’s Day should be a celebration, a four-day festival of indigenous culture to open our yearly season of consumption. Making Thanksgiving Indigenous People’s Day would give the day a higher profile. We could replace those parades with televised concerts of Native American music and dance that we can enjoy with our families while replacing our feast of industrial food with a meal prepared with ingredients grown according to native agricultural practices.

I don’t expect any of my ideas to see the light of day; that ship has sailed. Columbus is a name destined to be forgotten, no one likes sad holidays, and the mainstream culture won’t give up its ersatz “American” Thanksgiving of turkeys and football and giant balloons. But my more important point is this: we spend the other 364 days a year identifying with the victims; it may do us some good to spend one day a year owning up to the extent that we’re oppressors, that our existence is due to some heartless bastard, and to consider ways in which we can make up for it.