Tuesday, October 15, 2013

800 Words: The True Villains of Columbus Day

On the internet, you’re either an Oatmeal reader or you’re not on the internet. Even someone as luddite as I can’t escape The Oatmeal. On every social media reader there are people who are constantly sharing it. Apparently it gets four-million unique visits every month. I’m not usually one of them, but I’m nevertheless astounded by how much passion he inspires in his readers. Would that I had any friends who were half as passionate about this blog as they are about The Oatmeal.

I find The Oatmeal mildly amusing and mildly intelligent. I’ve never liked it enough that I go out of my way to read it - and the truth is, I never have to - but I find it an amusing diversion, even if it’s not something I find anything but a diversion. But then again, I’m not your typical internet person. I can barely use this blog, let alone figure out how to use the various functions that don’t involve typing and linking to Youtube. Clearly, I’m not The Oatmeal’s audience, and I’d rather use the internet for the things which luddites inevitably use it for - magazine articles, Spotify music, youtube, facebook, and free porn.

But it would seem to me that The Oatmeal had a comic this week which made the internet rounds more quickly than perhaps any web-comic ever has in my experience. It certainly elicited a stronger reaction in me than any I’ve ever had to that webcomic, and it was about Christopher Columbus. I can understand why the internet took to this so well - it is anti-established wisdom, it gives a self-flattering sense of outrage, it shows that an entertaining website can have gravitas, and it has just enough scholarship within it to be incredibly wrong.

Christopher Columbus should not have a holiday. That much is clear to anyone whose brain isn’t askew. Even if he’s not one of history’s most terrible villains, he probably was a villain of history, and he should not be commemorated as anything other than that. But what passes for opinions on Christopher Columbus is a crime against history, and a crime against scholarship. Columbus Day is yet another stupid, meaningless holiday in the American calendar among the dozens of them which should not be holidays in America - why is Columbus Day the arbitrary day which we assign culpability for the genocide of American Indians and not Thanksgiving? Why do we assign Columbus the blame for the initiation of mass democide when there is far less verifiable proof of his culpability in the senseless murder of millions than there even is of Franklin Roosevelt’s?

The disproportionate amount of time, the disproportionate ink, and the vicious temporary insanity which this holiday engenders, is reason enough to scrap this holiday forever. But that does not excuse the vicious, vacuous, dishonest, willfully naive techniques utilized by both those who argue for its scrapping, and those who argue for its upholding. For the second time on this blog, and much more explicitly, I submit to you, dear (not four-million) reader(s), that for all the pettiness and stupidity which this holiday engenders, that there is no more accurate dividing line in American politics between the rational, liberal, a-ideological pragmatists and illiberal, monist, dogmatic leftists and rightists, who resemble nothing so much as each other, than an American’s reaction to Columbus Day. 

It is a source of great fortune in America (currently perhaps the only one) that the country is not beholden to dogmatic leftism in the same manner that it is beholden to dogmatic conservatism. The ultimate triumph of the Tea Party will be when socialist/leftists defeat liberal pragmatists, a happening which may easily come to be as soon as in a mere generation. Right now, the liberal pragmatism of Obama is all that holds this country together. When he is gone from office and can’t protect us anymore from the demons this country holds, will all left of the left be people who fight conservative hellfire with hellfire? The country as we know it, everything we know within it, will no longer have protection from people who insist on seeing nothing but the demons within one another. The country, perhaps the world, will be driven mad by people who firstly insist upon driving themselves mad with cheap outrage at perceived injustices. Ask yourself, do you believe that the upholdance or destruction of Columbus Day is an important issue? If you do and are not Native American yourself, then I would venture something infinite on the fact that you harbor toxically corrosive beliefs about issues a lot more pressing than Columbus Day.

Lest this all seem like exaggerated hyperbole, let’s take a few paragraphs to examine some points a bit deeper. In the blogpost I wrote at this time two years ago, my main point was to merely elucidate as best I could the facts about Christopher Columbus while merely stating that people talk about this issue as though they have any idea what they’re talking about. But now I’m going to talk about how people don’t know what they talk about, why they don’t, and for what reason they refuse to accept the corrections they so richly deserve. And it fundamentally comes down to two issues, sadly, perhaps the two issues of the gravest importance to all of human history.

Firstly, there is the issue of genocide - allegedly instituted by Columbus and then continued on a larger scale by Cortes and other conquistadors. The diseases incurred were truly cataclysmic, but the idea that Columbus was in any way responsible, as The Oatmeal alleges, for the death of 3-5 million people due to germs he did not know how to transmit on such a massive scale is risible. We do not hold defendants culpable for murder because they wanted the person who was dead to die, and even if such a defendant accidentally caused a death he desperately wanted to happen, we can only hold the defendant culpable in civil court for wrongful death.

There is no reliable record of how many Native Americans existed on the American continents before Columbus’s arrival. Estimates range anywhere from 8 million to 145 million. The most reliable estimate we have is to guess that 55 million Native Americans lived in the Americas during the years before Columbus arrived. The ultimate total of fallen Native Americans from western domination was truly horrific, probably 60 to 80 million. But it was tallied over a period of 400 years, and therefore it has to be considered that still faster genocides and democides existed at virtually any given time during its history. Nevertheless, population totals display that the actual number of Native Americans dropped by 95 percent, a total so horrific as to defy description. In at least one sense, the genocide of Native Americans must be counted the most successful in history. Nevertheless, the genocide was mostly an accident - an accident welcomed by many if not most white people of its time and place, but an accident nevertheless. The actual number of truly murdered Native Americans ranges from 2 million to 15 million, a total still horrific enough to beggar belief, but not one that can likely be counted a ‘successful’ genocide in any manner which was deliberate.

Secondly, there is the issue of the Slave Trade. It’s absolutely true that Atlanticist Europe was brutal with regard to the degree in which they dealt in slave trade, but not at all special. In fact, the Atlantic Slave Trade was dwarved by the Arab Slave Trade and the trade of the Roman Empire. It is generally supposed that the Atlantic Slave Trade involved somewhere between 12 and 15 million Africans over a period of 300 years, 10 to 20% of those died upon the ships, untold millions more were born and died enslaved within the Western Hemisphere. And yet the totals become still more miserable when one realizes that the total enslavement upon other continents and eras was in some ways quite a bit worse. In raw numbers, it is highly possible that the Arab Slave Trade exceeded the Atlantic by an exponential factor - in the 1300 years from the Mohammedan Caliphate to the end of the Ottoman Empire, it is generally supposed that the Arab empires enslaved anywhere from 10 to 18 million people, but some estimates alledge that no less than 25 million Africans alone were subject to the Arab slave trade - and remember, none of these figures necessarily include a traded slave's descendents who were kept within family ownership, a line of descent which could potentially go from the 6th century all the way to the beginning of the 20th without interruption. It would be a fool who denies the possibility that the sheer number of slaves in the Arab world dwarves the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas. In fact, in the last 300 years of the Arab Slave Trade, Arab powers enslaved anywhere from one to one-and-a-quarter million Europeans -  a tally which can only bring to mind Auden’s famous line that those unto whom evil is done do evil in return.

During the Roman millenium, it is generally supposed that, at very least, 100 million slaves were bought and sold throughout the Empire, and perhaps many, many more descendants were kept as slaves. And yet, somehow, the slave trade to the Americas is considered a unique evil to bare far more comment than the evils of slavery which happened on a still far more pernicious level, and to far more deleterious effect to world history. Thankfully, a plurality of African-Americans are finally ascending to the middle class and may freely pursue their own destiny. But how many billions of mainland Africans throughout history have been denied their opportunity, and are denied it still?  Indeed, it’s absolutely true many in the world lionize Columbus as a great hero in spite of the fact that he can be said (with not much proof) to have caused the slave trade. But many, many more people in the world worship Mohammed as a prophet, in spite of the fact that the proof of Mohammed’s role in initiating an even larger slave trade is a far more definitive stain on human history. Where is the equivalent, or greater, level of outrage?

The scale of horror in human history seems infinite, and those born to mere misery must count themselves lucky that they never endured what others did. But I have ulterior, sadly selfish reasons for rehashing all this. I believe there is something truly ugly about the anti-Columbus movement, something which obscures the true premeditated evil of this era in history; an evil that barely notes mention in general knowledge anymore, yet it’s just another chapter in a tragedy which has every right to claim special provenance over all other tragedies in recorded human history. Yes, every one of them.

As King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella saw Jews as threats to Spanish security and expendable sources of revenue, their court expelled Jews in a document called the Alhambra Decree of 1492 which accused Jews of subverting the Holy Catholic Faith and trying to draw Christians away from their beliefs. They were given four months to convert or leave the country - those who did neither would be burned to death without trial. Any non-Jew discovered to hide Jews would be punished by the liquidation of all their assets. Jews were told that they could keep all their possessions, except any gold, silver, or minted money. Estimates on the number of Jews who were forced to uproot themselves vary from 130,000 to 800,000. In an historical moment quite akin to the Trail of Tears, tens of thousands of Jews died upon their journey. Rumors spread throughout the Spanish lands that Jews would swallow their gold and diamonds to smuggle them into their new homes, and as such, many Jews were disemboweled by greedy speculators looking for treasure. They were also charged exorbitant fees by ship captains who tried to extort them because of their situation, and many of those who could not pay were simply tossed overboard mid-voyage. It was only one of 15 expulsions which the Jews underwent between the 13th and 16th centuries, but it's probable that Spain was the most painful. Spain was the great land of Jewish tolerance and prosperity for seven-hundred years.

In the aftermath of the Alhambra Decree, somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 Jews chose to convert. As converts to Catholicism, they were subject to the harassment of Tomas de Torquemada - agreed upon by virtually all pre-20th century historians as a principal villain in European history. Torquemada, The Grand Inquisitor, was a figure responsible for the burning of 2,000 heretics at the stake. Untold tens of thousands more were tortured, exiled, or imprisoned for life - chief among these heretics were, of course, Jews. Those Jews suspected of retaining their faith (aka. virtually all of them) were termed ‘conversos’ by the Inquisition, and in the streets they were called ‘marranos’, a term which literally means ‘pigs.’ The implied humiliation for a Jew is obvious, and one might compare it to the use of ‘n*gger’ for an African-American. But the result of such terminology is at very least as veritably lethal in its implications for Jews of that period and for many centuries of their descendants.

In such a climate, how can we take any testimony with regard to Columbus’s actions seriously in an era when torture and execution were so profligate and rendition without trial substituted for rule-of-law? Within the terror, chaos, and desperation of those years in Spain, how can we take seriously any claim that mass genocide in the New World was a controllable phenomenon among mercenaries who could collude and coordinate wiping out an entire race with pre-meditation? How can we even hold Columbus responsible for initiating a mass genocide he didn’t know how to create during a period when so much evidence exists that the intentions of men like Torquemada were clearly far more genocidal? Whatever Christopher Columbus did, he was no monolithically evil monster and deserves to be seen within the bounds of his time. The real villains of this era were the King and Queen and especially their Grand Inquisitor. Columbus has usurped Torquemada in the public imagination as the hated face of Spain, and such a replacement can only be bad news for 'us.' Torquemada, if known at all, is known for his starring role in a Mel Brooks song-and-dance number.

All told, this was still a high-end-of-medium level catastrophe in the history of the Jewish people - a cataclysm for sure, but no apocalypse. The tragedy of the Native American destruction perpetrated by Spain, however accidental, was far greater than the Alhambra Decree, but the cumulative, premeditated evil perpetrated against Jews throughout their history easily trumps that which was perpetrated against Native Americans, and trumps the premeditated evil against Native Americans even within the 1490’s.

I make no claim for unrecorded history, but I do claim a unique provenance for the suffering of the Jews in the recorded history of the human race, and I also believe, without reservation, that anyone who refuses to acknowledge this fact that no recorded evil has been done upon this earth as great as the cumulative evil perpetrated over the millennia upon this tribe of wanderers, is, whether they realize it or not, a transparent harborer of a belief for which the only phrase yet invented is anti-semitic. Not only have Jews been subject to the Shoah, the single greatest evil of the Modern Era, but also to the greatest willfully planned evils of other epochs as well. To compare Columbus’s exploitation of Native Americans, or Cortes’s, or Andrew Jackson’s, to the systematic murder of nearly six-hundred thousand Jews by the sword over three years in the Second Century (more than 1% of the Empire's population), or the industrialized murder of six million Jews in an area of the world where only seven million Jews lived, is the lowest form of barbaric double standard. But to say that what happened to Native Americans was still more evil, well... that is a minor act of evil in itself. One genocide was mostly accidental, and had as much to do with giving some plague-ridden blankets to tribal villages with no knowledge of how far and wide it would spread as with any amount of cold-blooded murder; the other was systematic murder with complete knowledge and record of exactly what was being done to whom. One was accidental horror on an unimaginable scale, the other was imagined, premeditated, and willfully executed in every possible detail. Within the span of less than six years, the only verifiably successful genocide in history was committed - no other recorded genocide has managed to kill the majority of the population the murderers set out to kill, let alone an overwhelming majority. Over a period of 400 years, American settlers could not kill Native Americans in numbers great enough to prove beyond doubt that they carried out a willful intention to slaughter every last Native American. And yet in six years, Germany slaughtered two thirds of the entire Jewish population of Europe - and the only reason they didn’t slaughter the vast majority of another two million Jews was because those Jews were ‘protected’ by Stalin’s Soviet Union, a place of mass starvation, show trials, disappearances, and war dead on a scale the world had never seen before or since; a place where had Stalin lived a few years longer, he had every intention of finishing what Hitler started. Even if Columbus or Cortes or Pizarro or any other Conquistador would have been delighted by the extent of their accidental crimes, to invite comparison from the Conquistadors to the Nazis is beyond merely disgusting, it is a stain and a sinister disregard to the memory of the most evil act perpetrated in all of human history - all the more evil because of the civility with which it was perpetrated.

To be sure, there are worse anti-semitic beliefs than that, perhaps much worse - at least liberalism has gotten us that far. But for all the apparent civilization and liberal-mindedness of our time, Jews are demanded to pretend as though what happened to them was just another evil among many that were perpetrated upon all manner of ethnic groups. This is not the space to document the nature, the consistency, and yet also the manifold variation, of Jewish suffering, though I have no doubt that day will come. In the meantime, it would suffice to say that it would have spared my people so much senseless suffering had we simply been eradicated from the face of the Earth in response to the Bar Kochba Rebellion in the Second Century.

We should always commemorate Native Americans, perhaps we should even give them a holiday with equivalent pomp and circumstance to Columbus Day. But I envy Native Americans, because most of them aren’t around to suffer anymore. Yet somehow, Jews always have just enough population left to keep clawing at survival in a world where so many hundreds of millions clearly want us all dead, and billions couldn’t care less whether we survive. The suffering of the Jewish people, the senselessness of living in a world which demanded mere survival to be our greatest triumph, has continued unabated for two thousand years - and today, yet another horrific genocide of millions upon millions of Jews in Israel is a mere nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon away from occurring. Century after century, death chooses the Jews, and still the world claims we’re not The Chosen People...

No comments:

Post a Comment