October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
A century ago this month Chicagoans were at work with the builders’ zeal that had made them famous around the world, transforming 586 acres of wasteland into a sugar-white civic fantasy that one out of every four Americans would visit and that would make its influence felt in every town in the country—and all in the name of Columbus.
There’s no great Columbian Exposition taking shape anywhere in America today. The commemorations tend to be diffuse and tentative. The state of Massachusetts, for instance, has just announced “Celebrate Discovery, Inc. (CDI)” to “implement programs” for the Columbus Quincentennial. GDI’s plans include “A Celebration of Peace and Justice,” an “Environmental Bell Ringing,” the issuing of a “500-page AIDS Strategy Book,” and a “Brochure describing GDI’s mission.”
This is all worthy, but it’s a far cry from the terrific party we threw for the world the last time around. The Columbus whose voyage is being honored—or, more accurately, marked—today, however, is a different man from the one they hailed in 1892. One scholar claims he “symbolizes everything that is against basic American values”; of his achievements the National Council of Churches says, “What some historians have termed a ‘discovery’ was in reality an invasion and colonization with legalized occupation, genocide, economic exploitation and a deep level of institutional racism and moral decadence.”
This line goes on: In the wake of Columbus came settlers who were in fact the first shock troops of a four-hundred-year war of conquest and extermination; murdering and plundering their way across a continent, they extinguished native cultures and built on their graves an industrial Moloch that has poisoned the air and the waters and will likely end by destroying the planet. Happy anniversary.
This view is reflected both in the Smithsonian’s revisionistic show of Western art and in the debate about multicultural education that has come boiling up; our columnists Geoffrey C. Ward and Bernard A. Weisberger discuss it in this issue. It is not the main focus of Gloria Deák’s Columbus catechism, however; that is, instead, an attempt to look at the man and his time and remind us of just what it was he did.
It’s perfectly true that, say, the Arawak Indians had little enough to thank him for. But if people cannot find it in themselves to be easy with the fact that a man as close to William the Conqueror’s day as he is to ours, and who embraced almost unimaginable risks, did not always behave like Jimmy Carter, they can perhaps take some encouragement in the particular fact of his voyage.
He did it all himself. His furious vision, his energy, his utter single-mindedness of purpose led, for good or ill, to the salient event of the last thousand years. It’s not a bad thing to be reminded that, now and again, an individual can seize the dice during his brief turn at the table, fling them full into the face of the odds, and change the sum of things forever.